Friday night is when the Toronto International Film Festival really explodes as more journalists, industry people and stars arrive to enjoy all the event has to offer. In a part of town, upcoming theatrical releases like “Bros“and”The female king” had their world premieres (click through for reviews of both), but I focused this year on what could be considered smaller films from this part of the party, including a little Canadian drama that I hope will be very, very big.
Clement the Virgin “Brother“ is the wonderful thing that every party-goer really wants to experience: the unexpected standout. It’s easily the best premiere of the festival’s early days for me. Virgo unashamedly admires the work with Barry Jenkinsespecially”If Beale Street could talk,” and I feel like there is a touch of Steve McQueens “Small Axe” movie in here too, but he also has his own confident, lyrical voice. His complex films unpack black grief in a way that we haven’t really seen very often. We have seen many stories of struggle and violence, but rarely the emotional and even physical toll that takes on loved ones and an entire community. “Brother” is a moving drama about a young man who is sort of forced to be a patriarch – he protects his little brother whenever possible – but also a vulnerable human being in his own right, one who knows the potential danger around around every corner, but he refuses to look down in shame or retreat in fear. And then it reflects that another young man, a brother, is also forced to be a protector. It’s a moving drama that I really hope is picked up by a major and brought to a wide audience. This movie deserves your attention.
The phenomenal Aaron Pierre (“The Underground Railroad”) plays Francis and Lamar Johnson (“Hate U Give”) plays his younger brother Michael. They are Jamaican-Canadian boys living in an area of Toronto known as Scarborough in the 1990s when violence begins to rise in their community. Their mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) has to work late to put food on the table, and so Francis becomes a sort of guardian, protecting young Michael when he’s scared and teaching him to be a man. At the same time, the film tracks Michael ten years later and reveals early on that Francis has died in that half of the film, and Ruth has been almost catatonic with grief ever since. When Aisha (Kiana Madeira), an old girlfriend of Michael’s, returns to see them, Ruth barely moves. Michael says she doesn’t talk much, and Johnson strikingly carries the weight of someone forced to stand still, not just out of grief, but to protect her mother. The difference in body language between the young, naive Michael and the one still haunted by his brother’s death is subtle but captivating.
There are so many subtly captivating details in “Brother,” from its mesmerizing sound design to a beautiful score by Todor Kobakov (obviously the meaning is to remember Nicholas Britell, but he pulls it off) to the way Virgo captures the geography and feel of its surroundings. He’s so good at conveying the placement of people in a space, whether it’s the apartment we know so well, the dangerous streets around it or a party where these increasingly troubled characters just smile and move. There is such graceful filmmaking here, cutting back and forth across time, built up as a thriller in a way because of our awareness that Francis will die but never lose sight of his characters along the way.
It helps a lot to have talents like Pierre, Johnson, Blake and Madeira in what is essentially a four-character piece for most of the playing time – it should be noted that Lovell Adams-Gray is also very good in a pivotal role in also the last act. Pierre is such a captivating performer, someone with an incredible physical presence but also a deep emotional flow in his body language and those eyes. He understands that Francis is at the age where he wants something more than a predictable future of menial work, and he becomes increasingly frustrated by the disappointments of his life. Johnson matches him blow for blow as he watches Francis take greater risks and realizes that his brother’s confidence may soon become dangerous. And then there’s Blake, who conveys bone-deep grief and trauma in a way that never feels manipulative. “Brother” is the kind of movie that I’m afraid will get stuck in the festival circuit and never go wider. It’s too good to pass up.
Of course, having a star helps if you’re trying to get over that hump to wide release, and Gabe Polsky‘s Butcher’s Crossing has a huge one in Nicolas Cageriding a wave of recognition for movies like “Pig” and “The unbearable weight of massive talent.” The Cage here isn’t quite as muted as the art house of recent years, but there won’t be YouTube clips of his performance either. It’s somewhere in between, and unfortunately a bit inconsistent. He never quite figures out the degree of threat from this Western villain, but that’s mostly the product of a film that’s just too inert and too shallow to dig into the deep philosophical underpinnings of its source.
Polsky adapts the beloved 1960 novel John Williamsone of the first such books to really deconstruct the old west in literary form – I haven’t read the book but did some research to see how it differs and saw a few comparisons to Cormac McCarthy if you are looking for a tone. The story takes place in the 1870s, when trips to the West begin to yield fewer and fewer positive results. And yet that region still had that draw, even for a kid from Harvard named Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger), who leaves it all behind to find purpose in the Rockies. (In the book, he’s apparently inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson.) Of course, anyone who’s seen a western knows that the city kid is going to learn a thing or two about the brutality of country life.
Will connects with a buffalo hunter named Miller (Cage), an imposing figure who talks about a valley he once found filled with thousands of the beasts, enough to retire from the profits made selling their hides. Will agrees to fund a hunting trip, and the pair set out with two other travelers, a Bible storm (Xander Berkeley) and a wild card (Jeremy Bobb). Oscar nominee Paul Raci and the big one Rachel Keller play relatively thankless roles back in town, but the majority of the film consists of four men on the trail, and at least one of them might not be entirely sane. I’ll give you a guess who.
“Butcher’s Crossing” is not a depressing slogan, but it has a huge twist of fate in that its main character is a kind of black hole. We simply don’t know enough about Will to care what happens to him, and his evolution from Harvard kid to buffalo hunter feels like a mere function of the plot. It’s not Hechinger’s fault, and I bet the character is richer on the page, but this feels like an adaptation that hits the plot points of its source but misses most of the meaning between the lines.
A similarly dull quality prevails Stephen Frears‘disappointing “The Lost King” a reunion of the Oscar-nominated director with the writers of his Oscar-nominated “Philomena” Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. They adapt the true story of Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins), a divorced mother of two who became obsessed with setting the record straight and finding the remains of King Richard III. There’s some fascinating material here about revisionist history – the idea being that people have come to accept Shakespeare’s version of the deformed, usurping king – and how it sometimes takes a unique person to right the wrongs of the past. It’s all well and good in terms of genuine storytelling – the kind of “did you read about the housewife who corrected Shakespeare” over a drink – but Frears and his screenwriters never quite figured out how to break out of it dull storytelling about their source. There just isn’t enough meat on the bones. Maybe the legend is sometimes more exciting than the truth.
We meet Philippa at a job she hates with an ex-husband (Coogan) who drops their sons off on his way to his online match dates. She is also dealing with her own physical illness, which draws her closer to the story of Richard III after she sees a production of the play with her eldest son. Was he really deformed? Was he really an illegitimate leader? Suddenly she sees Richard everywhere, literally. He pursues her when she becomes involved with the Richard III Society, a group of amateurs who sit around and talk about what history went wrong with the king, but don’t seem to do much about it other than angrily raise a pint. Langley is ready for action, even if historians and bureaucrats try to talk her out of it.
At its core, “The Lost King” is an underdog story, a tale of a woman who decided she was done being pushed around by men who seemed to delight in telling her she was wrong. Hawkins is expected to be solid, finding the balance between frustrating and growing trust in Philippa. People who like the film will do so largely for what she brings to it. Her work was almost enough for me, but it’s a classic case of the true story, and probably the book that first told the true story is more interesting than the movie about it.