“Transforming the way people see the world through film for forty years.”
Before every film at TIFF, the festival projects the raison d’être above. Cinema has the power to inspire, challenge and purge emotions deep inside, but it can also shed light on the oppressed, unveil injustice, and charge a war for social change.
After taking the morning off to shave my caveman beard, buy some groceries, and take a nap (mundane things rarely depicted in movies) my plan was to devote my night to doing a triple-feature of movies about teenagers, which when done right, are my favorite type of film.
The first film I saw, Rob Reiner’s Being Charlie (4/10), is a firm reminder of the flip-side. Bad cinema can close our minds. It can cheapen real-life sentiments for insulting manipulation. Being Charlie exists in an uncanny valley where something is dishonestly off.
By most accounts, Charlie (Kings Of Summer‘s Nick Robinson) lives in a good home. His parents are wealthy, and although his father may be absent (he is in a tight race to be governor of California), his mother is kind, loving and nurturing. Charlie is going down a path to be none of these. He is an 18-year-old heroin addict who is constantly in and out of rehab. It’s not supposed to go this way: good seeds should grow good apples. But Charlie, who is charming and good-natured, is dealing with an intense disillusionment and dissatisfaction that he thinks only heroin can heal.
There is the rare truthful moment in Being Charlie but too often the screenplay by Matt Ellison and Nick Reiner brushes too many conveniences under the rug. It treats its main character’s addiction as a plot device: a disease that can be turned on and off when the plot requires it. The relationship with his parents is restored without any lingering effects or consequences.
Parents may forgive mistreatment and rebellion but they don’t just forget. Cravings for drugs don’t magically disappear after a tragedy as they do here; if anything, they get worse. When a story is resolved by oversimplifying our realities, there is no catharsis and no inspiration to change our ways. We never buy that Charlie is being anyone except the screenwriters’ tool.
I didn’t have to wait long to recuperate because the following film on the bill was Guillaume Senez’s complex and heartbreaking Keeper (10/10). A couple of French 15-year-olds have to make life-changing decisions when they find out they will be having a child. I shed my first, second, third, fourth and fifth tear of the festival at this warm and unforgettable film.
Shot and edited like Senez’s fellow Belgian countrymen, the Dardenne brothers, Keeper has an unobtrusive visual style where every cut and camera movement feels natural. There is never a flashy moment or an instance where style trumps substance. Sometimes long takes are used to give the audience an immediate window into the world, but other times there is a montange or a shot/shot sequence. Senez is like a carpenter, always choosing the right tool for the job.
Where Reiner limits the perspectives and dimensions of his characters, Senez allows each scene to build complexity. We view his characters on the outside yet always understand them from within. Keeper’s subversive and novel point of view, which follows this teen couple’s pregnancy from the powerless male perspective, could have been controversial if it was rigid or condescending. But Senez doesn’t judge the girl’s mother who wants to seek an abortion just as he doesn’t get behind the boy and his parents who prefer to keep the child. He simply views the heartache of two babies who have to decide if they want to raise another.
Although February (7.5/10), a slow-moving horror flick, doesn’t try to be natural drama like Being Charlie or Keeper, it is still an interesting study of teenage angst: an introverted and bullied girl who is empowered to fight back. Amidst the blood, guts and beheading, Feburary is chilling in a way that mainstream scare flicks aren’t. It relies on atmosphere and character, not loud jump-scares or laughable clichés. Ambitiously structured, meticulously acted and even a little subversive, this isn’t the same spooky ghost story you’ve seen repackaged hundreds of times since The Exorcist.
There are two parallel storylines. Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) wait for their parents in a cold and deserted catholic school during the winter break while, in the second timeline, an emotionally distressed 20-something (Emma Roberts) is picked up by an older couple who stop their car on the side of the road. Like looking for your glasses and finding them on your head, a perfect twist flawlessly unites the stories in a way that was in your face the entire time. The carefully developed shift in perspective doesn’t cheat for the “aha” moment. If you re-edited the structure in chronological order, it wouldn’t feel like there was a missing piece in the puzzle to lead you astray. Some critics have found director Oz Perkins’ (son of Anthony) slow pace and cryptic storytelling tedious, but why shouldn’t February expect an audience to piece together the visual cues without exposition?
Perkins lingers in abandoned corridors and shadowy reflections as the discordant score dances around scenes adding exclamation points in places while allowing the silence to accentuate the horror in other instances. This is the rare possession movie that isn’t about a haunted house but a haunted soul.
Being a 19-year-old, and having lived many aspects of these stories, it’s easy for me to understand the nuances of the characters’ behavior. They remind me of foes; they remind me of friends; they remind me of me. February and Keeper offer catharsis for issues you struggle with, or they enable you to relate to others who do. Cinema can challenge us to be better people and provoke us to do so. On this day, TIFF lived up to their motto.