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TIFF 2015: “Downriver,” “We Monsters,” “Homesick,” “Keeper”

Amidst all the high-profile Oscar bait loaded with familiar faces, the Toronto International Film Festival annually shines its spotlight on a wealth of fresh talent from around the globe. There is a scintillating array of foreign gems worth seeking out at this year’s fortieth installment of the festival, several of which can be found in the Discovery program’s line-up, selected to illustrate “the future of world cinema.” Here are four pictures that are worth keeping an eye out for in American art houses, on the off-chance that they land a distribution deal. All of them are recommended, though one film rises above the rest, ranking alongside the year’s very best. 

We begin with “Downriver,” a tense, visceral mystery that marks the feature debut of Australian writer/director Grant Scicluna. Prolific TV actor Reef Ireland delivers a riveting performance as James, a young man haunted by ghosts from the past that have refused to rest in peace. As a child, he was accused of drowning a little boy in a river, a crime that resulted in James being sent to prison. Upon his release, he returns to his hometown, and is met by an old pal, Anthony (Tom Green), the person he believes was responsible for the boy’s death. In their scenes together, Ireland and Green resemble grown—albeit macabre—versions of River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton, which only intensifies the film’s echoes of “Stand by Me,” distinguished by the hunt for a missing corpse and the hints of evil embedded within a seemingly tranquil town. 

Cinematographer László Baranya enhances the film’s ominous tone with creeping pans, causing us to occasionally question whether we are in a flashback or the present. The sound design proves equally disorienting, as it frequently allows a conversation between two characters to play out over a wholly separate parallel scenario unfolding on the screen. This technique eventually pays off when the voices foreshadow a key twist just before it bursts into the frame. There are, perhaps, a few too many instances of characters placing themselves all-too-willingly in what appear to be obvious death traps, and the abrupt ending registers as unsatisfactory. Yet there is still a great deal of skillful craft on display here, as well as a uniformly strong ensemble. Green steals his scenes as the sociopathic pervert who burrows under the skin of his nemeses without ever losing his oily grin. Though the subject matter is often nasty and unsettling, Scicluna is disarmingly tender in his depiction of James’s sexual orientation. Ireland’s scenes with Charles Grounds (as Damien, the boy next door) are so sweetly observed, one wishes to see a film entirely about them.

Oftentimes in festival coverage, writers attempt to pair films with thematic similarities in order to achieve a certain cohesion. At the outset, German director Sebatstian Ko’s “We Monsters” seems that it would make a fitting double bill with “Downriver”—and it does, though not in the way one would expect. Hapless father Paul (Mehdi Nebbou) is driving his moody, 14-year-old daughter Sarah (Janina Fautz) to summer camp when she asks him, out of the blue, to pick up her friend, Charlie (Marie Bendig), who just happens to be waiting for them. No sooner has Charlie entered the car that a fight breaks out between her and Sarah. Paul stops the car in front of a murky forest, and the girls run out, supposedly on a bathroom break. A few charged moments later, Paul pursues them and finds Sarah standing precariously on a ledge, staring down at the water far below. She says that Charlie fell to her death—and that she pushed her.

At first, Ko’s film plays like a bleak drama evocative of Calin Peter Netzer’s Romanian heart-tugger, “Child’s Pose,” as Paul and his ex-wife, Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre), grapple with the moral ramifications of an unthinkable dilemma. Will they hand their child over to the authorities, or will their love for her override their better judgment? Andreas Köhler’s magnificent cinematography creates some of the most indelible compositions I’ve seen this year, building a Hitchcockian sense of dread with its claustrophobic angles, boxing in characters as they find themselves well in over their heads. The surprise comes about a third of the way through the picture, as “We Monsters” reveals itself to be a diabolically entertaining ode to twisted karma, fueled by the sort of morbidly funny irony that made Damián Szifrón’s “Wild Tales” such a hoot. A recurring visual motif of a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly inspires multiple interpretations as secrets are stowed away, lines of civility are crossed and ordinary people are forced to confront the monstrous nature of their primal instincts. “If she transformed into an alien, it wouldn’t surprise me,” replies Paul while staring at his daughter. It won’t be long before he’ll start feeling the same way about himself.

Unlike the other three films in this article, “Homesick” is being featured in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema program, though its director will be no less of a discovery to many audiences. Norwegian filmmaker Anne Sewitsky has a penchant for telling stories that involve some semblance of youth, whether they’re films about kids (such as her bawdy short, “Oh, My God!”) or for kids (her family-friendly feature, “Totally True Love”). Indeed, the opening title sequence for “Homesick” shows its twenty-something heroine, Charlotte (Ine Marie Wilmann), leading a group of pint-sized students in a spirited dance lesson. Charlotte’s tendency to look both adult and childlike in the same moment is indicative of her own arrested development. Growing up estranged from her scattered family, she has never felt a true intimacy with anyone in her life—until she meets her half-brother, Henrik (Simon J. Berger). Though he initially treats her coldly, the pair begin to bond through a series of role-playing antics. She wins him over by agreeing to a childish dare, and later informs a waitress that she and Henrik are newlyweds on their honeymoon. The siblings’ mutual attraction clearly frightens them both, yet quickly becomes too potent for either of them to deny. 

This premise could’ve easily been exploited for the sake of cheap titillation, yet Sewitsky honors her characters by humanizing their feelings without judgment. In terms of films handling the topic of incest with remarkable sensitivity, “Homesick” is in a league with Samuel Perriard’s superb “Black Panther: The Story of Emilie and Jacob” (which screened at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival). It is also a spectacular showcase for Wilmann, who brings entrancing nuances to every scene, enabling us to understand each step of her character’s emotional journey. There’s a heartbreaking moment where she stands with her dancing class, while clad in silly dog ears, and stares out at her boyfriend in the audience. He’s one of many people in her life that she has begun to systematically isolate herself from, as her affair with Henrik grows fiercer in its intensity. In that scene, more than any other, we can see the lost girl within the radiant woman, yearning for the human connection that was sorely lacking throughout her childhood. It is to Sewitsky’s credit that the film refuses to saddle its complex tale with a trite message, or provide its characters with any easy answers. 

And now we’ve come to the best of the bunch, Guillaume Senez’s “Keeper.” It’s a Belgian/Swiss/French co-production that will assuredly be included on my list of the finest films I’ve seen in 2015. The fact that Senez is a first-time feature director makes his achievement here are all the more extraordinary. This is one of the most authentic and rigorously unsentimental portraits of adolescence in recent memory, tackling teenage crises that have been watered down in countless after-school specials, and revitalizing them with unaffected grace. 

The script co-authored by Senez and David Lambert leaves every obvious, plot-driven scenario offscreen, focusing instead on the moments in between, which often tend to be what linger most vividly in our memories. Several years down the road, Maxime (Kacey Mottet Klein) may not remember the precise details that occurred when he quit his football trials in order to be with his girlfriend, Mélanie (Galatéa Bellugi), who is pregnant with their child. But he will certainly be able to recall every excruciating minute he spent waiting outside for his father
who also happens to be his coach—to pick him up. Senez allows this scene to unfold wordlessly, almost as if in slow-motion, and the effect is crushing.

Maxime and Mélanie are 15 years old. Neither of them planned on having a baby and both have no intention of giving it up, much to the chagrin of Mélanie’s mother, who doesn’t want to see her daughter make the same “dumb mistakes” she made (“Am I dumb mistake?” Mélanie fires back). Typical Hollywood formula would require this premise to rely on the “love conquers all” trope, ensuring that our heroes will remain true to their convictions and arrive at an ending as happy as it is improbable. What matters to Senez, above all, is the reality of his character’s circumstances. Their actions may be wrongheaded and even repellent at times, yet they never ring false for an instant, thanks in large part to the performances. Due to star next year in the latest André Téchiné picture, Klein somehow manages to make Maxime effortlessly magnetic, even when his behavior is at its most juvenile. And Bellugi, who carries more than a passing resemblance to “My Girl”-era Anna Chlumsky, is a flat-out revelation. It’s rare to see a performer her age capable of remaining fully in the moment as the camera holds on her face for minutes on end. That’s what happens toward the film’s final act, as Mélanie begins to feel the gravity of her decisions pulling her back to earth. The carefree escapism of her surroundings couldn’t be farther removed from her mounting sense of responsibility, and in the quiet of her mind, she makes a pivotal decision. No words are needed to convey this to the audience. Bellugi’s eyes tell us everything we need to know. “Keeper” is, quite simply, a keeper on every level.

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