This is part four in a series of four summaries of what I saw at TIFF 2012. Personal favorites from TIFF 2012 are marked with an asterisk (*).
Tiff 2012 — Parents and Children
I may have self-selected this theme by choosing to attend films that had something to do with parents and children. I’ve discovered that some of my favorite movies have to do with growing up, with becoming an adult. The movies on this list in some way acknowledge the metamorphosis that happens during puberty.
The Place beyond the Pines
Derek Cianfrance ( Blue Valentine) and I share the same Alma Mater, so bear in mind that I have a rooting interest in his films. Judging by some of the negative buzz I heard, I may have been in the minority in liking the three-part film about the sins of the father being visited on the son. The movie opens on a virtuoso single-take shot of Ryan Gosling walking from his trailer, through a crowded fairground, and riding a motorcycle into a spherical cage at a traveling fair. He returns to the same town next year to find that he has a son. He turns to a life of crime to pay for the baby’s stuff. The second chapter changes perspective, to that of a cop being internally investigated over the use of excessive force. The third timeline connects the two stories through the children of the previous two stories. The large disjunction between the three parts is mildly distracting — it makes The Place beyond the Pines feel like three movies instead of one. But you won’t feel lost as you watch, and you’ll clearly see how the stories fit together. Some of the later scenes feel less plausible than the Gosling-heavy first segment.
Sometimes the sins of the father (in this case, mother) are sins of omission. Kim Ki-duk’s newest film follows on the cracked heels of Arirang, in which he explained his period of reclusion. It would be easy to say too much... let’s just say that Pieta deals with deeply personal issues such as regret, grief, revenge, and sacrifice. A loan shark preys on the vulnerable in the depressed machine-shop-heavy area of a thriving city. His life softens when his mother, who had abandoned him as a child, finds him as an adult. Disturbing and provocative, Pieta might alienate some art-film goers; there are many scenes of implied torture (graphic, but not explicit), and there is a scene of incestuous rape. But the violence and horrific scenes are not gratuitous, and in fact they support Kim’s interesting and deep exploration of the bond between mother and son.
Father and daughter form the core relationship in Blancanieves. I knew vaguely that the words in the title were “white” and “snow,” but it didn’t hit me until the movie started that that this was the tale of Snow White. Set in 1920s Spain, filmed in 4:3 and black-and-white, and presented as a silent film, Blancanieves has been called this year’s ” The Artist.” That’s actually a pretty shallow comparison. A good-hearted Snow White lives with her vain and impatient stepmother for as long as she can. When her father, a renowned bullfighter convalescing after being gored in the opening scene, dies, Blanca is thrown out on her own. She falls in with a troupe of bullfighting dwarves who open for the A-list toreadors in the small towns on the Spanish plains. The spirit of her father always remains with her as she builds a name for herself as a capable, talented, and female, bullfighter. Blancanieves seems to be a couple of cinematic experiments — first in making a silent film in 2012, and second in getting the story away from the fairy tale while keeping the themes and details. It succeeds well in both experiments.
Something in the Air
A more realistic coming-of-age story is Something in the Air. This film didn’t do much for me. It’s about French communist students in the early 1970s who agitate for political causes that they don’t seem to fully understand. Some of them fall in love. Some travel. At the end, they have learned that they have a lot to learn. The movie put me to sleep, partly because it was at the end of a long day, but mostly because there wasn’t much of an arc to the protagonists’ stories. The film lets them lead, but they don’t know what they’re doing, so it feels like it goes nowhere. There are some very good scenes, including a night “action” in which the students wordlessly vandalize their school. There are some interesting bits of dialogue, including some ironic conversations about the syntax of “revolutionary” film. But it feels like a movie peddling nostalgia for a specific demographic, and if you’re not a 1960s French radical, it may do nothing for you.
What Richard Did
In contrast to the young radicals, Richard is what you would call a good kid. He’s a high school senior. He’s on the rugby team. He’s handsome. When Richard’s extended group of friends goes camping near his family’s beach, he shares his alcohol with peers, then turns around and reassures the mother of a friend. He is the picture of red-blooded, yet responsible, youth. Obviously he does something that merits the film’s ominous title — it’s not necessary to say what it is — and the last half of the film features Richard working out what kind of person he’s going to be. Will he deny it and move on, or will he ‘fess up? I really liked the first half of the film — I loved the portrait of good kids that didn’t necessarily fit a Hollywood cliché. They would drink, but not to excess. They would taunt and tease, but not bully. They would fall in love, but not shock their elders. I wasn’t so fond of the second half of the movie; it seemed inevitable that Richard would have to make some sort of decision, and I thought the movie took too long to get there. (And in fact, the ending seemed a little ambiguous, with Richard deciding one thing but the film showing Richard doing something else, unless I misremember.)
Our Little Differences *
Another “teens in trouble” movie, this time from the parents’ point of view, is Our Little Differences. It’s a small German film — by “small” I mean it has a primary cast of a few characters, in a few simple settings. A fertility doctor, separated from his wife, is raising his teenaged son Artur in Berlin. Unlike others at the clinic, our doctor knows the immigrant janitor’s name (it’s Jana), and he treats her well. Jana also cleans his home, and sometimes Jana’s daughter helps out. When she does, the doctor invites her to stay for dinner. One night the doctor arranges for Artur to get Jana’s daughter back home after they go out on the town. The doctor has his own night out, with a TV appearance as a fertility expert. The next morning at the clinic, Jana is worried because her daughter didn’t come home. The doctor is sure it’s nothing, and that their children simply found a friend to stay with. The movie continues as the parents track down their kids — mostly at Jana’s insistence. It may not sound like much of a plot, but with such fertile and rich themes as cultural and class differences, parenting styles, and the differences between native and immigrant experiences, Our Little Differences delivers a satisfying, dense package in a plain, unassuming box.
The We and the I *
Michel Gondry almost disappears in this story about Brooklyn teenagers (and not their parents) riding a city bus home from the last day of school. Gondry shows that in a group, teens are like a school of piranhas. Even if it’s their own species that shows some weakness, they’re not above joining a feeding frenzy. But whittle the mob down to a few individuals (at each stop, a few more students get off the bus) and they’re not so bad. Two popular bullies dominate, while a troubled girl gets the prominence of the first-introduced character — she’ll become important toward the end when, without a critical mass of peers, one of the bullies bares his soul. Gondry’s usually-expressive style is reduced to a few on-set jokes (a toy bus introduces the movie, in-scene titles set up each section of the film). The film almost feels like a film that the kids themselves would make — the characters and scenarios could easily have been written (or improvised) by the art students who acted — although the story is clearly put together by a professional.
Another film made with a group of non-professional child actors is Kinshasa Kids. Instead of a documentary about orphans, the filmmakers opted for a drama made with the Congolese street kids. In Kinshasa, we are told, unwanted children can be accused of witchcraft and kicked out of the home. It’s a socially acceptable way for stepparents to dump children on the streets, and it lets them feel self-righteous while doing it. This reprehensible practice is not itself the focus of Kinshasa Kids, but rather the starting point. The movie focuses instead on what the children do when they land on the streets. There’s an initiation phase while the established kids decide if the new kid is cool enough to join the gang. Then there’s the schooling phase when the new kid learn what to do and what to avoid. Then it’s down to basics — eating, sleeping, and working. Finally the new child will discover, and eventually contribute to, his culture, just as anyone might do in any new place. The movie acknowledges itself a few times with fourth-wall-breaking interviews before disappearing into the background. It ends on a satisfying concert that the kids work very hard to put on, with the unreliable help of a Fagan-like musician named Bebson who seems motivated equally by a desire to help the kids and a desire to profit from them.
The last film on the list isn’t about kids and parents, but it is about the exploitation of musicians. Jared Leto is the lead singer for the band 30 Seconds to Mars (movie lovers might recognize him from Requiem for a Dream). This documentary was intended to be a behind-the-scenes look at the making of their new album. But when the band got sued by their own label for 30 million dollars, that became the focus instead. In the end, the movie is also about the desperation and possible death throes of the recording industry. As one interview subject puts it, their very business model is to screw their own artists, which as we are seeing, is not sustainable. I don’t know 30 Seconds to Mars’ music, but that didn’t keep me from generally liking the film, in spite of quite a few specific complaints. For example, the last “act” seems like a lot of waiting... we know there will be some sort of outcome, but the movie marks time as we wait for it. There are also some inane and irrelevant interview subjects saying things like “music is important” to the human mind. Well, that’s nice, but what does it have to do with 30 Seconds to Mars or their lawsuit?