Similar to last year, 2023’s Toronto International Film Festival was mainly an in-person affair, even further limiting access to some of the fest’s biggest titles. That didn’t stop us from consuming some of our favorite movies of the year! Don’t miss our full coverage of this year’s TIFF after the jump.



(Written by Wyatt Frantz) Throwing its audience headfirst into the dense pit of snow that is Norway’s youth asylum center, A Happy Day takes confident strides in its uniquely stoic, yet absurd style of filmmaking. A desolate premise takes on a more effervescent perspective than one would expect, as a like minded community of teens find ways to enjoy their youth before being sent out into the world. Gunshots that pierce the air of the camp remind them of their unsure fate, but the beautiful, yet menacing snowy mountains looming over them remind them that there is another way. Hisham Zaman’s completely original voice that strikes a perfect balance between the bright and dull sides of the story, using deadpan shots and an occasionally whimsical tone, feels vaguely reminiscent of a bitter Wes Anderson. Stiff performances from some of the cast and a lack of exposition struck me with a slight cinematic whiplash at first. The occasional indulgence in aggressively weird worldbuilding and character development feels out of place. But once Aida’s (Sarah Aman Mentzoni) overdue appearance adds spice to the tired trap of our characters, my interest only grew until the credits rolled. Placing Hamid (Salah Qadi) at a crossroads, his balancing act between adolescence, pursuit of war-stricken happiness, and hallucinations of reindeer make it suddenly obvious that this is not a story that we have seen before. Literal personifications of Hamid’s visions and thoughts make things only more interesting both visually and narratively, advancing the plot while also adding a great deal of character building and depth. If the shoehorned poem recitals from the get go don’t make the thematic intention of the film clear, then an eventual explosion of expressionism will. Turning the confines of the camp into Zaman’s means for self-discovery, interpretive scenes treat its audience intelligently while staying well within the guidelines of its world. Much like tasting snow for the first time, A Happy Day is an acquired taste, spotlighting a fresh voice in the cinema that sneaks up on the audience and explodes in flavor.


(Written by Wyatt Frantz) Perspective tends to change when shown both sides of a story. But when it comes to learning a hard truth, is it worth living in an ignorant bliss, or coping and moving on with life? Imagine making such a choice for one’s children; this is the dilemma at the center of  A Normal Family. This riveting family drama leads one down a rabbit hole of social facades and twisted morals that slowly meld with the escalation of its stakes. With that being said, do not let the title mislead, and do not rush to choose a side! As brothers Jae-gyu (Jang Dong-gun), a doctor, and Jae-wan (Sol Kyung-gu), a lawyer, navigate their children’s teenhood with their spouses, the parents frontline tense familial battles between each other concerning rights, wrongs, and fatal consequences. While I would have liked to see more of their kids’ perspectives, which felt excruciatingly important given the conflict at hand, I understand the choice to focus on the parents. It invites the viewer to question their role as decision makers for their kids, and to consider similar, unseen situations that may arise in reality. I wish that focus was even stronger, however, as it takes a while for the story engine to truly start running thanks to subplots we could have done without. The purpose behind most of what is shown on screen is all made obvious in the end, as Hur Jin-ho’s thoughtful direction is made obvious from his emotional compositions, although it is not the most narratively efficient. The overly dramatic performances and comedic overabundance of car crashes did not even bother me by the time I was made aware of those critiques–I was too intrigued in what future lay ahead for the ill-fated family. Calling class disparity, the naivety of youth, and law and order all into question, A Normal Family is an enthralling social commentary that will slowly suck one in and astound.


(Written by Allison Brown) The act of being cancelled has become a notorious fear for many given the prevalence of internet culture. For this reason, I was highly intrigued by the synopsis of Wregas Bhanuteja’s Andragogy. The word andragogy is defined as adult education, which our lead, Mrs. Prani (Sha Ine Febriyanti), surely endures and must grow from. A woman obsessed with ethics, it is highly unlikely that she would be recorded cursing at an elderly woman, yet this is her tragedy to endeavor. She is so taken by teaching what is right from wrong, that Mrs. Prani singles out misbehavior from students, and awards them with personalized punishment she defines as “reflection.” These range from tasking a repeat spitter with studying his saliva under a microscope and blowing up a photograph of it for her classroom, to telling another child who verbally abused a peer to do the same to his plant and observe. When the honorable teacher, who just so happens to be up for a desperately needed promotion, sees a line cutter at a popular food establishment, she takes a stand. Unfortunately, the rude patron receives barely any flack, while a clip of Prani saying “too long” in Javanese sounds really close to “filthy dog.” Her words are misconstrued, and go viral. She gets put under the microscope, just as the student’s saliva, and things quickly escalate downhill. Not only is the teacher’s life destroyed, but her family, students, and acquaintances suffer as well at the hands of the anonymous, vengeful internet mob who could care less about the truth. As a whole, Andragogy is painfully depressing, and every glimmer of hope is immediately crushed. I expected the story to play more like a dramedy given the subject matter, and instead it is shallow, utterly sad, and overlong. Prani’s entire family is unlikeable, and only come to her rescue when it is too late; her influencer son, Muklas Animalia (Angga Yunanda), is particularly repulsive and grating. Much context grows dependent on an understanding of Indonesian culture, and may be difficult for an international audience to fully grasp. While I commend Bhanuteja’s effort, Andragogy is sadly not my cup of tea.

The Beast

(Written by Allison Brown) Existing somewhere in the realm of a Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tribute with an eerie sci-fi setup calling up notes of Crimes of the Future, The Beast finds its home as an unquestionably divisive genre entry. Oozing with metaphorical repetition, it may take some time to decipher what unfolds during this anthology piece. We follow Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) and Louis (George MacKay) as they connect across space and time. With context provided from outside information garnered from fellow critics, it was easier for me to understand the nuance and real-world connections in the plot. As a result, this film becomes out of grasp of the average viewer, leaning particularly pretentious. Despite writer/director Bertrand Bonello’s meticulously curated and intelligent symbolism—most frequently involving pigeons, dolls, and glitches—the intriguing callouts get lost in a sea of tedious conversation. Of the three divisions in the nonlinear timeline, the 2014 thriller plot emerges as both strongest and leanest. The period piece romance is far too talky and philosophical for my taste; it also contributes to much of the overlong runtime. The dystopian future thread in 2044 connecting the trio is a bit difficult to comprehend, and I am not sure I fully understand it. Nevertheless, The Beast becomes a dense, layered film sure to inspire analytical conversion.


Full review at the link.


(Written by Jonathan Chuck Chuck Baby is a romance musical of sorts that gets lost in the execution. Parts are handled like a grounded drama, based in deep emotions and character relationships. One of the most emotional aspects is in Helen’s (Louise Brealey) relationship with a maternal figure. Writer/director Janis Pugh seems dedicated to keeping the movie mostly grounded, with characters singing along to preexisting songs the way people do in real life. Far from an average musical, Chuck Chuck Baby recalls a much better music-centered romance, yet fails to live up to its full potential. The actors’ vocals can barely be heard over the prerecorded track, barely qualifying Chuck Chuck Baby as a musical. The pacing lacks momentum, which is more clear with Pugh’s avoidance of non-diegetic music (which she doesn’t fully commit to). It sometimes tries to ride the line between a grounded narrative drama and an elaborate musical movie so much that it fails to stand out in either genre. There are some abrupt tonal shifts as a result. Ultimately, Pugh should have picked a lane and stuck with it. There is some beauty in the narrative, surrounding Helen and Joanne (Annabel Scholey) reconnecting and falling in love later in life. But the quiet, subtle moments are mismatched with Celyn Jones as Gary, a homophobic man with all the subtlety of a villain intent on world domination. Chuck Chuck Baby is not without its feel-good moments of female friendship, but is too dreary and cyclical to revisit.

Concrete Utopia

(Written by Allison Brown) The passionately opposing critical reception I have seen on Korea’s entry for Best International Feature Film, Concrete Utopia, has been a personal enigma. A lot of people obviously hold it in high regard, or it wouldn’t have been selected to be submitted to the Oscars. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. While billed as a sci-fi thriller, it feels more like a dark dramedy. Like any post-apocalyptic film, in chaos, order is restored by a faction that slowly becomes more corrupt with power. A stark disregard for human life starts with the residents and the outsiders, two rival factions, who eventually exist in a kind of endless war. As time passes, the perception of the outsider group transitions to “cockroaches” existing among the rubble. Murder of these people means nothing to the apartment resident leaders, as they aren’t perceived as real human beings. Both sides assume the other to hold cannibalistic tendencies, depicting otherness in a manner not dissimilar to the conspiracy theories drafted towards America’s own political parties. The protected class, deemed “chosen ones,” in the Hwang Gung apartment complex exists outside reality; they have New Years’ Eve celebrations, sing karaoke, and paint each other’s nails. It almost seems to be an allegory for Nazis living life obliviously during the Holocaust. Even without true society, class structure still emerges. The rich get “richer” by sustaining larger rations, while the regular residents barely get by. Director Um Tae-hwa spends much of the narrative withholding the audience from the reality of the end of the world by immersing us in silly drama that the residents are faced with. Stakes are low, until suddenly something terrible happens, which is soon forgotten. A lot of the narrative is difficult to completely follow without replaying it. While Concrete Utopia has a lot of big ideas and complex themes, an overlong runtime without refinement takes away from deeming it awards worthy.


(Written by Intern, Robin Price) The truth is hard to come by. Not because people do not want it, but because it is usually snuffed out by those who wish to keep others blissfully ignorant. Writer/Director Ian Gabriel’s seventh film, Death of a Whistleblower, tells the harrowing tale of rogue South African journalist, Luyanda Masinda (Noxolo Dlamini), as she investigates the mysterious death of her romantically involved colleague, Stanley Galloway (Rob van Vuuren). The corrupt government forces will stop at nothing to prevent Masinda from uncovering the truth. She puts herself and those she cares about in jeopardy, causing everyone she is involved with unnecessary suffering. Luyanda comes off as naïve, self-serving, and aggravating, as she painfully tries to convince us otherwise. While acting in reckless abandon, she deludes herself into thinking no one would endanger her in broad daylight. The film presents itself as a serious drama and tribute to those who have lost their lives in bringing political mismanagement to light, but comes up short in its execution. A shallow portrayal of the main character and inconsistent pacing hold back the narrative, leaving it simplistic and lackluster from beginning to end. When discussing subjects as compelling as racism, capitalism, genocide, the exploitative post-apartheid government, and the silencing of informers, one would think a film would surely be more captivating. Regrettably, it feels like a surface-level attempt; Death of a Whistleblower ultimately pans out lukewarm. While relatively stimulating and a commendable effort on highlighting vital issues, I was hoping for more intrigue.


Full review at the link.

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed

(Written by Allison Brown) Set in New York City, The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed is perhaps the darkest timeline of mundanity for female singledom. Writer/director Joanna Arnow plays triple duty as her own lead and gives a perfectly fine performance. While I know little about the auteur, aside from her status as an alumnus of the same school as her character, it almost feels as if Arnow is going through the motions playing herself. We follow Ann S. as she runs the docket through dating, working a generic office job, and spending time with her equally dull parents and degrading sister. Ann’s experience, ignoring her sex life, will surely be relatable for many viewers, but is it enough to carry a feature length narrative? The same could have been told through a short, and resulted in an identical takeaway. Even more bizarre, for a movie billed primarily as focusing on BDSM, there is very little sexual content and limited nudity. It focuses more on Ann’s identity as a submissive in nearly every aspect of her existence; she lacks self-respect, and when she stands up for herself, there is modest conviction. Arnow is the only one on screen in her own skin, but sexual acts are generally shown through the lens of PG-13 content. The true synopsis would be better labelled as a dry, deadpan dramedy detailing a slice of life chronicle of a depressed, friendless, awkward, and lonely 30-something woman in New York. If one is into this sort of thing, venture on. Personally, I do not want to spend my time watching a foreboding of the worst-case possible life scenario.


Previously titled a far more appropriate Bloody Hell, Fitting In arrives at TIFF newly branded, with much to prove. Teenager Lindy (Maddie Ziegler, West Side Story, The Fallout) is just like any other girl in her age bracket. She cannot stop thinking about sex, whether in the privacy of her own home, or in the company of her longtime friend, Adam (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Beans, Hell of a Summer), whom she has “eye fucked” for months. Decidedly different than others: Lindy has a rare condition know as MRKH Syndrome. As a demeaning doctor explains, Lindy’s uterus and vagina have not developed normally. Not only will she never get a period, but Lindy will need to use many various methods to stretch out her “blind vagina” if she does not opt for surgical measures. The doctor even suggests possibly practicing with a man “not well endowed.” She tries her hardest to hide the secret from bestie Vivian (Djouliet Amara, Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between, Seance), while Lindy’s mom, Rita (Emily Hampshire, Schitt’s Creek, The Mattachine Family), tries to be supportive, if not overbearing. Lindy exploring her sexuality and trying to find out where she belongs is entertaining for awhile before it begins to grow redundant. Intersex pal Jax (Ki Griffin, Hollyoaks) and adorable fast food worker Chad (Dale Whibley, Big Shot, There’s Someone Inside Your House) are just two of Lindy’s potentials. Recent films like Sharp Stick or Ninjababy tackled similar subject matter in far more interesting ways. There simply isn’t enough here to stop Fitting In from fading into the crowd in spite of writer/director Molly McGlynn packing in as much of her own experiences as possible. It is simply a movie destined to be forgotten by year’s end.


Writer/director and indie darling John Carney (Once, Sing Street) returns for his latest, Flora and Son. Flora (Eve Hewson) is just a single mom trying to do her best to raise her son, Max (Oren Kinlan). Sure, Flora forgets a birthday here or there, and she loves partying more than she seems to love spending time with Max. Flora can’t even seem to get on the same page with 14-year-old Max, relegating their relationship to a series of heated arguments. A good gesture in gifting Max a guitar turns sour when Flora realizes the only instrument Max needs is his computer. Instead of wasting the freshly-purchased item, Flora begins professional guitar lessons over video-chat with charismatic Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Flora and Son puts emphasis on this romantic relationship early on in the film, but the movie ultimately chooses to hone-in on the mother/son bond instead. The choice to shift focus will frustrate some viewers (myself included), who were hoping for a return to the silky sweetness of Once. Flora and Son has beautiful catchy tunes, but the lacks the narrative heft to convincingly string them together. Nonetheless, this is not a bad movie, but rather one I had hoped to connect better with.


Full review at the link.


(Written by Allison Brown) Mother-daughter relationships, particularly in adolescence, are not the easiest to navigate. Conflict can be abundant, as a mother tries to prune their child into the woman they hope they will become, oftentimes in their own image. This level of control, while a teen tries to make their own place in the world, may not leave them the most receptive to criticism. If the pair greatly vary like shallow Elisabetta (Alice Arcuri) and her imperfect daughter, Veronica (Margherita Corradi), harmony is nearly nonexistent. What would you do if your nastiest of behavior and words uttered in teenage angst were taken out of context, and used as evidence in your mother’s murder trial? In Holiday, Veronica must deal with this fallout after a very public acquittal when the entire world has already rendered her guilty. Murder trial narratives are nearly always a win, but this iteration misses the mark. Aside from vitriol spewed between characters, there is almost no evidence for the audience to utilize in substantiating our own conclusion on guilt. This activity is what makes these kinds of stories so stimulating. The courtroom scenes run in the background, almost never completely taking center stage. A non-chronological take on the timeline makes understanding where we are in any given moment confusing. Unless a deceased character appears on screen, it is sometimes difficult to tell if a scene is taking place in the past or present. An unclear and abrupt conversation in the end fumbles any intended takeaway. Aside from some wonderful acting, Holiday does not feel fully formed. 

Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person

Full review at the link.


Full review at the link.


(Written by Intern, Robin Price) To get lost within one’s imagination is a great power; the young protagonist in Kanaval finds himself doing just this quite often in order to cope with his new life. Director/Screenwriter Henri Pardo guides the viewer through the eyes of a boy who immerses himself in fantasy to escape from a difficult reality. Based in 1970s autocratic Haiti, Rico (Rayan Dieudonné) flees to a rural town in Quebec with his mother, Ezrulie (Penande Estime), after watching her be savagely beaten due to her connection to rebel forces. Arriving in Quebec, Rico deals with a freshly strained relationship with his mother, while also experiencing the newfound ire of some residents juxtaposed with the love of others who inhabit his small town. He is trapped in an unknown environment with unpredictable people, and faced with a brutal understanding that his mother finds his presence disdainful. Pardo delves into topics of racism, religion, trauma, parental estrangement, societal roles, immigration, and how it affects Rico’s mind and actions. Dieudonne’s performance sucks the audience in, leaving one breathless, anticipating what will unfold in the next scene. A gut-wrenching fantastical drama, Kanaval has a different take on the coming-of-age genre, while keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat from start to finish. The title successfully delivers on most aspects, but sadly leaves behind a gripping feeling of emptiness in the manner in which Rico and his mother reconcile. This segment comes off rushed and unfinished; an actual apology is never seen between the two, and the story arc is dropped too soon. Despite a few plot holes, Kanaval will leave the audience with a lasting impression in its heartwarming story and strong character performances. 

The King Tide

(Written by Allison Brown) Christian Sparkes’ The King Tide is a singular and visually powerful sci-fi thriller that will leave viewers talking for weeks to come. Cinematography explodes with ethereal sea and landscape shots so stunning they might draw a tear. Child acting is incredible; Isla (Alix West Lefler) and Junior (Cameron Nicoll) give layered performances, including one emotional scene seemingly alluding to 1991’s My Girl. The synopsis provided by the festival keeps the plot relatively vague, but it should be noted that this is a true cult film. A chilling final scene almost inadvertently recalls pop culture phenomenon, Heaven’s Gate. The townspeople solely care about Isla, a gifted child who washed up on shore as a baby, to take advantage of her healing powers. When her supernatural skills suddenly pause after a traumatic experience, the villagers try to spin their visitation experience as mutually beneficial. In this way, the film serves as an allegory for those that manipulate and use religion solely for their own benefit under the guise of holiness. Absentminded casting detracts from the otherwise high quality of overall composition. Bobby (Clayne Crawford) and Beau (Aden Young) look so much alike in wardrobe, and have such similar names, that it is often a challenge to differentiate the two on screen. In turn, their families become a bit blurred together, making some storylines a bit confusing. Nonetheless, The King Tide is a pleasant surprise for genre fans to enjoy.


(Written by Jonathan Mandoob is a movie with a total of two good ideas. The first is the setup for the main character, Fahad Nassir (Mohammed Aldokhi), establishing his backstory after being fired from his job at the call center. The second occurs in the last ten minutes. Everything leading up to that feels like it is building up to something that never fully takes shape. The screenplay gives Fahad a personal reason for actions taken with his ill father. The rest is a tensionless story of a man down on his luck. Meandering along without enough substantial content to justify the runtime frustrates more than entertains. The first act is one of the strongest portions of the movie, but the second act needs a lot of work, having very little momentum. There is only one major narrative turn in the second act, when Fahad decides to steal six cases of counterfeit whisky in an attempt to make money. However, this does not happen until over an hour into the runtime, when it belongs as the inciting event. A counterfeit whisky theft could have been an interesting criminal act, but the ramifications don’t fully land until the final ten minutes, which is what the entire movie should have been. The rest of the second act is largely one-note and uninspired. Mandoob does not lean into dark comedy, drama, or thrills nearly enough.


Full review at the link. Allison also interviewed actress Amrit Kaur.


Never has a movie so badly wanted to be Gone Girl than Netflix’s mystery thriller, Reptile. Carrying all the subtlety of a bag of bricks, co-writer/director Grant Singer’s mystery is not engaging whatsoever. When the brutal death of real estate agent Summer paints nearly everyone surrounding her orbit as a potential suspect, bland detective Tom Nichols (Benicio del Toro) arrives to solve the case. Nothing is as it seems—could answers lie with Summer’s current beau, Will (Justin Timberlake), another wealthy real estate agent? Or perhaps someone else, like Summer’s currently-separated spouse, Sam (Karl Glusman), or her disgruntled trashy neighbor, Eli (Michael Pitt), are actually involved? Reptile attempts to emulate the greats, but lacks the writing to pull any of this off convincingly. The leads are grossly mismanaged; Nichols bores as the lead, almost flatlining each time the story shifts to his perspective. Any goodwill built dissipates entirely during a lackluster, underwhelming finale. An ensemble cast this great deserves better.


(Written by Allison Brown) Real life becomes a horror movie when attractive young women decide to join a work travel program in desolate, remote Australia, an area inhabited by chauvinist, drunkard douchebags. Director Kitty Green is back for another joint project with The Assistant’s Julia Garner in an effort to reveal the most menacing behavior of the unrefined man. If unfamiliar with Green’s previous work, the audience will know exactly what they are in for only a few minutes in, as a middle aged man unapologetically knocks open the bathroom door while our two young leads are about to hop in the shower, nicknaming Hanna (Garner), “smart cunt.” Working at The Royal Hotel, the local pub on almost completely barren land, is not for the weak hearted or delicate. Be prepared to occasionally sleep on the floor, constantly swat away flies, and stumble upon a spur of the moment bar fight or drunken intercourse. Co-workers will lack all manners, refusing to engage in friendly chit chat or tour guide duties (unless they are interested in sleeping with you, that is). The characters here have zero filter, saying exactly what sexist garbage comes to their minuscule brains the second it arrives. Hanna is the perfect foil to the great majority, providing a much needed reality check for her less careful friend, Liv (Jessica Henwick). I cannot count the number of moments I have been in Hanna’s shoes on a night out with an intoxicated friend. The subtly-infused comedic asides are neverending. When asking for a lighter from a patron, Hanna is nonchalantly presented with a pair of tits in all their glory printed on the metal. A chefs kiss ending is a perfect close to the absolute shitstorm these two girls must put up with to make a quick buck. I am definitely in for the ride if a potential part two happens to explore the more pleasant part of their future trip to Sydney.


(Written by Intern, Robin Price) Based on Kim Thúy’s award-winning novel of the same name, Ru is filled with unsettling silences and mesmerizing visual storytelling. The film depicts the coming-of-age saga of a young girl, Tinh (Cholé Djandji), and her family’s treacherous immigration to Canada from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Tinh is forced to flee her war-torn home and abandon her old life, all while adjusting as a new Canadian citizen in Quebec. For a character with such complicated internal turmoil, Cholé Djandji’s performance unfortunately stays one note and unemotional, missing the mark of what writer/director Michaud is most likely trying to portray. Her presence on screen comes off as doll-like, which makes the few times she shows emotion while reminiscing about her escape feel hollow. Although I came to care about her tribulations, an impenetrable barrier exists between Tinh and the audience. Performances are generally of average quality, aside from a handful of standout moments. Jean Bui, when playing Tinh’s father, Minh, is particularly strong in a scene where he shares why his family urgently needed to leave Vietnam. A deep lingering sorrow emerges whenever a flashback depicts these horrors experienced by the “boat people” on their journey. Stunning cinematography is perhaps the strongest aspect of the film. Sprawling shots of snowy Quebec are juxtaposed with the dreary ambiance in the cramped boat, and ransacked areas of military occupation. Ru is a beautifully shot and meaningful tale of growth and personal acceptance. Michaud, however, focuses more on style over substance, leaving little meat on the bones of the narrative. As much as I commend his efforts to shine a light on a less talked about cultural event, the end result comes up short.

El Sabor de la Navidad

(Written by Allison Brown) As a big fan of last year’s A Man Called Otto, I was eager to see Mariana Treviño in another role. El Sabor de la Navidad, coincidentally my very first watch from new Spanish-language streamer ViX, includes Salma Hayek Pinault among the ranks of its producers, further hyping it up. This holiday dramedy is sadly nothing more than a generic and formulaic Hallmark Channel Original Movie. The inclusion of a trans character, who just so happens to be disrespected for a large portion of the runtime, is the only differentiation from the norm. As an anthology, it is rather successful in its integration of the three primary stories, focusing on love, family, and friendship, with a well-balanced amalgamation in the final scene. An advent calendar acts as a transition between stories, but it is never developed or referred to by anyone on screen; it ultimately results in filler stock footage. Comedic moments are cheesy and predictable, lending nary an effort to creativity. It even ends with a snapshot of the group taking a family photo, which has closed out more made for television movies than I can count. I am genuinely surprised this title even made the lineup, unless it was an opportunity to get more exposure for the budding streaming service. While not poorly made, there nothing unique here to justify more eyes on Sabor de la Navidad.


(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) The youthful, ignorant bliss of vacationing to a family beach house is a liminal memory for many. This is a relatable experience that Seagrass gently taps into, repainting it in a less optimistic, more grounded light. Contrasting modern growing pains with adverse upbringings, there is a suggestion that the resulting memories are but small rifts that grow into tsunamis, driving forward a timeline of the troubled American dream. However, subtle storytelling and stiff characters make such a conclusion difficult to realize at first glance. Judith (Ally Maki) and Steve’s (Luke Roberts) marriage counseling is disguised as such a getaway. Their daughters, Stephanie (Nyha Huanga Breitkreuz) and Emmy (Remy Marthaller), are pitted with other kids in the same boat, in a summer camp for the unaware. Childish rumors of the dead haunting vacationers from a nearby cave lead Emmy into bouts of anxiety from visions of her deceased grandmother. Judith answers to her worries, as she struggles to juggle raising her daughters with her unresolved past and Steve’s unapologetic masculinity. While the slow, naturalistic storytelling offers a new window into moments that feel lived in, a surprising lack of nuance seldom displays how Judith and Steve’s broken relationship would bleed into their daughters’ lives. This only comes to fruition in a heart-racing final twenty minutes, although the credits roll too soon after. Cycles of brief suspense and resolve pace the narrative until then, driven by otherworldly dolly shots that seamlessly glide through scenic landscapes that suggest a haunting presence. We are regularly given hints as to what could propel an impactful journey for the family, between Judith’s repressed past or passing racist remarks, but the narrative doesn’t expand far beyond the intimate aesthetic it first establishes. Treating its audience as an observer, one is left feeling like an outsider to the emotional core of its characters. The passiveness of the story begs to ask why such life constants are so deeply ingrained in an unsatisfying reality, but a weak story engine and refusal to offer its own take on the matter renders it unengaging.


(Written by Allison Brown) The Middle East and its general disdain and subjugation of the female population is nothing new. Trying one’s hardest to escape it, while being tethered to the sole source of the problem through parenthood is something inexplicable to fully grasp. Director Noora Niasari attempts to convey this in her tender and personal feature vignette, Shayda. Selected by both Sundance and TIFF, and later scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics, I had high hopes; despite a slow start, it did not let me down. While I am sure Niasari wants to revel in the happy times of her upbringing rather than dwell on the pain, we spend too long in this sheltered naïveté before being reminded why the pair were forced to depart in the first place. Shaving off about thirty minutes from the runtime would immensely strengthen this already robust film. Niasari lets the audience peak into her childhood, both in the trauma and pure joy (particularly marked by a deep adoration of The Lion King). Abuse and manipulation from her father, Hossein, expertly acted by Osamah Sami, is a terror to behold; one will be glued to the screen in dismay. An argument where Hossein tells Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) that she would be killed if she went back to Iran after attempting a divorce is chilling to the core. If he is this controlling and delusional while they are separated, one can only imagine how vile their relationship was when the two were still married. Happiness is most evident in the sweet chemistry between Mona (Selina Zahednia) and her mother, mainly as she and the audience are taught her origins and culture. We are given a brief education on Persian customs and the celebration of the New Year holiday. Wardrobe immerses one expertly in the 90s with a wide array of hats and nostalgic fashion I likely owned as a child. A repeated push from Shayda’s mother to forgive and tolerate an abusive partner shows how engrained the backward patriarchal customs are in the Iranian experience. Between Shayda and Inshallah A Boy, filmmakers are undoubtedly making an effort to expose Western audiences to the dangers of uniquely conservative traditions. If only people were more open to change, societies could embrace progressive ideas where vital to prevent tragedy, while maintaining the aspects that make their worlds special.


(Written by Allison Brown) I thought Sisterhood (HLM Pussy) would be exactly my kind of movie: feminist, impactful, and social media heavy with interesting editing. It is none of these things. We follow a bratty and obnoxious fifteen year old trio, Amina, Djeneba, and Zineb, who provoke other equally terrible teen boys and act surprised when they retaliate. They repeatedly bully other classmates, calling them fat, stupid and ugly. Two of the three, Amina and Djeneba, are desperate attention seekers. Djeneba is a shallow sneaker-head influencer; she is so awful that her uncle insinuates she prostitutes herself for shoes. Amira, on the other hand, uses her friend’s pain for feminist clout online; it never once feels genuine that she is trying to get attention for the greater good. When the girls play victims after the blowback of secretly filming a predator in a compromising manner, sympathy does not come easy. The only character that garners sympathy is the one actually sexually assaulted, Zineb. The only saving grace of classiness here is the choice to leave near-rape scenes to the imagination, focusing on the character’s mental state. However, based on the previous behavior of the victim, the audience may doubt her experience, and invalidate the entire message intended by the film. Undeveloped themes of racism towards the Jewish, Black, and Arab communities are shuttered in, but all come from the mouths of immoral people. A Black character, Djeneba, is called “slave girl” as a random inconsequential retort, leading one to doubt the morality of writer/director Nora el Hourch. Who would ever think to include something like this in dialogue so offhandedly?  The word “whore” is thrown around often, without significance or repercussion. Everyone gets away with bad behavior with a mere slap on the wrist, learning nothing of their poor decisions. Sisterhood (HLM Pussy) ultimately left me incredibly angry; such an intriguing premise could have gone in a much more powerful direction, but instead, el Hourch gave us this shallow, destitute abhorrence.


Full review at the link.


(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) Smugglers offers a unique glimpse into a lesser-seen corner of South Korea’s crime scene in this fast-paced, exhilarating revenge tale. Blending a large, fleshed out cast with action-packed genre filmmaking reminiscent of Tarantino, crashes and bangs lie around every corner. This is especially true for its larger than life premise that blends the worlds of freediving, trafficking, and the classic good cop bad cop storyline. The big budget and high production value manage to craft as riveting an experience as such a description lends one to imagine, with an abundance of beautifully colored shots that authenticate its uniquely charismatic world. The performances opt not to convey a sense of realism, rather leaning into the fun, unnerving energy of a narrative that escalates with each minute of its runtime. A jazzy, groovy soundtrack always manages to bring out the amusing tone that lies underneath every scene, no matter how gruesome or gory it gets. Still, I found the drug fueled drama more emotionally powerful than the comedy this sets out to be, thanks to the deep familial conflicts and the all-around high stakes. This is by no means a downfall—there is a fair share of slaps, laughs, and flat out goofy twists that work, although weakening the film’s overall identity. While it is a fun ride all around, it is riddled with exposition that will rack one’s brain, with new pieces that are always being added to the puzzle. It may feel hard to keep up with, but still serves to flesh out an intricate, well thought out history behind our characters, that all amounts to a satisfying payoff. Whether or not one opts to debunk the story’s intricacies, the stimulating environment and enjoyable story make it just as feasible to go with where the tide of the narrative takes them. Get ready to dive in, because Smugglers is worth holding one’s breath for.


(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) Director Ninna Rún Pálmadóttir’s bittersweet ode to loneliness manages to creep into one’s heart before rendering them speechless. Gunnar’s (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson) vast Icelandic pasture sets the stage for the film, before he is forced to sell it to the government for millions. His stoic lack of reaction to the contractor is a testament to his reclusive, asocial personality. After saying goodbye to his beloved horses and the atmospheric landscape, he moves to the city and meets Ari (Hermann Samúelsson), a very young yet friendly paperboy. Denying Ari’s first attempts to deliver the paper to him, Gunnar tries to shut him out of his isolated lifestyle. A few conversations and a chess game later, Gunnar warms up to Ari, and goes on to form a deep attachment with him. As Ari continues to fill a void in old Gunnar’s life, how far will their atypical relationship grow? The seventy-five minute runtime boasts a story of smaller scale, yet it is still just as strong as any other existential drama out there. Such emotional impact is difficult to find in a film that is both short and slow in pacing, yet Solitude finds success in its tender performances and intimate cinematography. Atmospheric Icelandic rurals interlaced with diegetic, soothing piano pieces from next door work together to create a cold, yet homely landscape of a comforting winter cityscape. The adorable attachment between Gunnar and Ari drives the narrative forward, which starts to lose steam as it takes its time to get to the root of the conflict. When it does, however, it cuts deeper than one would expect, leaving its audience with longing and hope for the characters. It leaves a lot of open air, which may leave some with a lingering sense of inconclusion, but plenty of room for discussion and rewatches nonetheless. Doing justice to its frank title, Gunnar’s loneliness bleeds in between the lines of this successful, visually-driven poem commemorating human connections and fulfillment.


Oh hey, it’s a new queer romance/drama set in the Montreal drag scene! My obsession with all things RuPaul’s Drag Race and adoration for the art of drag means every single project popping up, especially at festivals, shoots up my list. Writer/director Sophie Dupuis brings a unique gay story to TIFF, both set in and filmed in Canada. Drag performer Simon (Théodore Pellerin, There’s Someone Inside Your House, Boy Erased) may have found his “creative partner” and possible love of his life in the form of new blood Oliver (Félix Maritaud, BPM (Beats Per Minute), Knife + Heart). At the same time, Simon’s famous mother whom he has not seen in fifteen years comes back into the picture, requesting to take Simon and his sister to supper. Simon and Oliver become a drag duo, feeding off each other’s energies. A toxicity begins to creep in as Oliver’s true colors slowly reveal themselves. Expectations played a major role in my mixed feelings towards Solo, namely because I felt a little misled. Though being sold as a general romance, Solo is a simple character study without much substance. Simon walks a shaky tightrope of his own sanity, and Oliver gaslights him at every turn. Théodore Pellerin’s performance definitely begs for at least one viewing.


(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) There is a suggestion that in today’s professional world, a predetermined set of gendered guidelines and personality traits are the formula for success. Héléna Klotz’s Spirit of Ecstasy carries a commentary that goes against the grain of these modern workplace expectations, suggesting a greater importance in being yourself. It follows Jeanne (Claire Pommet), a non-binary genius who comes from a military family, fighting to break into the world of finance as an intern at a top-competing firm. Using her smarts, she replaces a computer scientist and writes a breakthrough code automating the firm’s buy-ins to the stock market. Capturing the attention of her boss, Farès (Sofiane Zermani), Jeanne is taken under his wing. After helping him negotiate deals for the firm, Jeanne secures a job as a quant with his new hedge fund abroad in Singapore. Little do they know, betrayal lies ahead. All the while, Jeanne must balance their personal life with their professional endeavors, as they make amends with their former lover, Augustin (Niels Schneider). While the plot tries to mesh a subversive biker aesthetic with a world of wealth akin to The Wolf of Wall Street, it falls short with dialogue that feels posh and empty. Regular bouts of business-talk and smart-sounding terminology would have been better replaced by lines of dialogue used to convey a sense of purpose. A resulting lack of conflict and understanding for our characters results in a narrative arc that feels empty, failing to answer the question of why Jeanne’s story is significant. From a visual standpoint, however, Spirit of Ecstasy is somewhat of a technical marvel, with strong cinematography and intelligent pacing used to craft emotional swells and tender moments. Regardless of the story’s faults, Jeanne’s journey to chase the bag carries enlightening messages on class and flaws in our modern social landscape in this double-edged blade of a film.

Thank You For Coming

(Written by Allison Brown) In Thank You For Coming, Kanika Kapoor (Bhumi Pednekar) goes against her deepest desire to find true love, and agrees to an arranged marriage with a vanilla, conservative man. She is suddenly afraid of ending up alone when she invests years in self-discovery, depicting traditional societal values as not her own. She believes she is capable of unknowingly committing adultery with a friend’s partner, despite their extremely close relationship. It all really does not align with Kanika’s characterization. While Thank You For Coming is a lot of fun, it somehow has too brisk a pace while also being overlong. At times it is necessary to rewatch dialogue, as factual nuggets are easy to miss. Comedy does hit more often than not, but a few laughs are not enough to excuse its faults. Much of the narrative is nonsensical in terms of character behavior and realism. Scenes are far too long and don’t add much to the plot. In one example, it cuts back and forth from an overextended number to show Kanika re-connecting her “frogs.” A suspension of belief is vital; why would all of one’s exes in life be present at their engagement party? The actual execution is equally sloppy; transitions from quiet chats back to never-ending loud and coordinated Bollywood-inspired dancing sequences do not feel natural. This is a central plot point that determines the direction of the second act, but surely there must be a better set up. An overwhelming number of secondary narratives leave the film overstuffed. We navigate a teen losing her virginity and dealing with sexual blackmail, a man coming out, difficulties of a single mother, bullying, sexual coming of age, and a throwaway car accident, among other things. While almost endorsing conservative Middle Eastern ethics for a large chunk of the film, including insinuating a thirty-something year old is ancient, we end on an overly feminist note that feels shoehorned in. If Thank You For Coming isn’t taken too seriously, it is an amusing, albeit melodramatic, chick flick worth a watch. Others may find it more difficult to embrace.


As far as foreign dramas go, Upon Open Sky was definitely one of the most disappointing I caught this year. The film actually starts off in a promising manner—a boy and his father stop for gas, headed to Santa Cruz for their uncle’s ranch. A horrible head-on collision occurs that same day, resulting in the father’s abrupt death. Two years later, the family is still trying to return to normalcy. Eldest son Fer (Maximo Hollander) manages to track down the old trucker who was in the other vehicle. Blaming the man for his death, Fer leaves with young Salvador (Theo Goldin), his stepsister, Paula (Federica Garcia), and her boyfriend, Eduardo (Sergio Mayer Mori), for Piedras Negras to confront him in person. They get permission from their mother and stepfather under the guise of going elsewhere. Fer brings along a gun to ensure justice will be enacted. Upon Open Sky made me uncomfortable with its displays of animal cruelty, and frustrates in its refusal to give catharsis to the characters. What I wanted was a pulpy road trip revenge flick, but the script from Guillermo Arriaga would rather dwell in dark moral complexities and sibling dynamics. Upon Open Sky commits the cardinal sin: while it may look pretty, the sun-drenched movie bores more than entertains.

Widow Clicquot

(Written by Allison Brown) With flowery and frilly language reminiscent of a romance novel come to life, Widow Clicquot arrives in all its charming glory. This aspect of the script is not a surprise, as the period piece is adapted from Tilar J Mazzeo’s novel, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It. Fans of the genre will no doubt be satiated by Haley Bennett and Tom Sturridge’s gentle chemistry on screen; the passion in their marriage is saturated with untainted emotion. A juxtaposition of illumination while François (Sturridge) is alive, to stark darkness and muted tones while Madame Clicquot (Bennett) conducts corporate dealings after he has passed visually depicts the dominance of their partnership over everything. As François delves into madness, I found the themes parallel to some in Netflix’s Queen Charlotte. While Thomas Napper clearly intends to infuse feminism into a story of a sharp woman leading a thriving business, his patriarchal lens limits the director from fully committing. Instead of honoring a revolutionary woman who greatly influenced the winemaking industry for years to come, too much time is spent flouncing around in love. While this effort provides the strongest and most crowd-pleasing scenes, it reduces Clicquot to a woman only existing in the shadow of her lover, as all her triumphs are attributed to what her late husband would have preferred. This is perhaps a result of the referenced Napoleonic Code of 1804, forbidding female managers unless they are continuing their late husband’s work. Nevertheless, a more capable lady director could have included this notion, while also circumventing it more carefully. I cannot recall any aspect of her entire name, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, even being used once in dialogue. She is solely referred to by her husband’s surname, Madame or Widow Clicquot. A female team at the reigns surely would have moved the direction more towards a biopic focusing on Barbe-Nicole as the entrepreneur behind iconic brand Veuve Clicquot. It is also a bit odd for the characters’ dialect to be more reminiscent of England, rather than France where it is set. Despite these shortcomings, Widow Clicquot is still worth recommending, primarily for the romance bits without context. It could easily find a home at a mainstream distributor like Bleecker Street.


(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) Although marketed as an “absurdist debut feature,” Katalin Moldovai presents a striking, socially aware intersection between politics and the public school system in Without Air. It all starts when Ana Bauch (Ágnes Krasznahorkai), a standout 11th grade literature teacher, recommends a homosexually decorated film to her class that covers the life of a poet they are discussing. When star student and literary mastermind Viktor (Soma Sándor) is caught watching it by his conservative dad, a complaint is submitted against Ana, forcing the school into a rough legal spot. Under pressure to receive city funding for an upcoming celebration, Eva (Tünde Skovrán), the staunch school principal, forms a makeshift ethics counsel who votes to reprimand her. Even though she is hailed as an instrumental teacher to the school, hopes for her case are but a downward spiral. But that’s not the end of the line for Ana, who appeals the decision, making it clear that she will not teach at all if she can not teach freely. Eva’s clashing concerns about her school’s public image blow the situation out of proportion. While Eva’s can be seen as an antagonist, the fight against the system remains at the core, as Krasznahorkai poses a stark contrast between teachers who are indifferent versus those who exceed expectations. Ana’s impact is made visually and metaphorically apparent as performance and mood shifts around her presence, with a hypnotic and determined performance that begs viewers to root for her. Such conscientious filmmaking is a testament to how successfully it is shot, boasting warm, soft colors composing a high school interior that feels heavenly and inviting. Each scene radiates an emotional aura that grows stronger with the runtime, grounding one in realism before exploding into a riveting quest for justice. A Hungarian love letter to educators who truly care about their pupils, Without Air tests the boundaries of public education in this tense, scandalous drama.

Allison’s Ten Favorite Films

My favorite film was Boy Kills World, a colorful extravaganza of stylized violence and dark comedy. Allison had quite the eventful fest, checking out a grand total of 44 titles. In addition to her ten favorites above, Ru and The King Tide deserve an honorable mention for absolutely stunning cinematography. Our intern, Wyatt Frantz, has done some exceptional work, carrying much of our festival coverage this year. This is his last festival with us; we will miss him, but wish him luck on all of his future endeavors! We also interviewed the director of Boy Kills World at the top of TIFF, who revealed some exciting aspects about the making of his frenetic feature film debut. Next year, perhaps the stars will align, and we can finally experience TIFF in person! Until then, it’s time to close the chapter on another solid year.

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