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TIFF 2014, Day Four: "Men, Women & Children," "Ruth & Alex," "Boychoir"

The dangers of social media. The travails of a boy soprano. The vagaries of the Brooklyn real-estate market. These were subjects that tried the souls of characters found in three Toronto titles that were unveiled over the weekend.

“Men, Women & Children” is a rather jumbled ensemble piece not unlike “Love Actually,” as a community of characters crisscross paths as they each grapple with personal relationships. Except, this is more like "Sex Virtually," with technology often filling in the role of a brothel madam.

Director and TIFF favorite Jason Reitman at least ups the ambition and relevancy ante after his disappointing “Labor Day“ at last year’s fest, as he zeroes in on different ways our reliance on digital gadgets disconnects more than connects us with one another. For parents who are fearful of the effect that social media has on kids, this will be scarier than any horror flick title in the Midnight Madness lineup. Of course, for high-schoolers who live this movie and more everyday, it’s business as usual.

While Emma Thompson perhaps unnecessarily serves as a narrator from space while providing the big picture content, prepare for yet another barrage of cartoonish bubbles of text onscreen a la “Chef” and “Non-Stop.”  As for which character's situation you relate to most, that probably depends on what stage you are at in your life.

There is the waifish cheerleader who gets pointers from The single mother and failed actress who lives vicariously through her teen daughter’s potential chance for fame on a reality show and keeps her modeling web site well-stocked with cheesecake shots. Most over-the-top award goes to Jennifer Garner as a vigilante mom who devotes what seems to be every waking hour monitoring her daughter’s social media comings and goings.

But two of the stories are good enough to probably have been films all on their own. Don (Adam Sandler, nicely stripped of all goofball affectation) has a boring corporate job but his full-time preoccupation seems to be watching porn on the Web with a trusty box of tissues beside him. He decides to take the next step with a living, breathing escort found online. Little does he know his missus, Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) is itching to hook up with strangers as well. He hires generically sexy escorts. She hits the jackpot through with the estimable Dennis Haysbert. Score one for the girls. Meanwhile, their porn-addict son can’t achieve an erection without online stimulation.

But one storyline got to me the more than the rest. That’s mainly because of the naturalistic appeal of the young actors involved. Ansel Elgort of “The Fault in Our Stars” is a high-school football hero who enrages his teammates when he suddenly quits. The reason? To be able to spend more time escaping into a role-playing fantasy video game after he learns via Facebook that his estranged mother just got engaged. Another distraction: A female classmate who happens to be Garner’s over-protected daughter (up-and-comer Kaitlyn Dever of “The Spectacular Now”). Their attraction to one another builds through normal activities and thoughtful conversation.

For anyone who has watched a generation of children grow up spending more time tapping at screens than talking to one another, many of these scenarios hit close to home. There is more than a hint of public-service message about “Men, Women & Children,” but it just might inspire you to put down your digital device for a couple hours and simply take in the world before you firsthand.

”Boychoir” is one of those unanticipated sleepers that might be a bit ragged around the edges yet occasionally break through at film festivals. Its very title suggests a hokey excuse to round up a gang of cherubic-faced schoolboys with bell-like voices to please the family crowd, and it definitely has some of that.

But there is also a cutthroat competitiveness among the lads at a New Jersey singing institution that nicely blends the atmosphere of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts with the one-upmanship of “All About Eve.” Sentimental outbreaks are kept to a minimum until the very end thanks to a somber tone to the interaction between the teachers and the taught, whose brief lifespan as performers is in the hands of the puberty gods.

But, first we must get past a shaky prologue set in an impoverished section of Odessa, Texas. There we meet Stet (newcomer Garrett Wareing), an undisciplined 11-year-old troublemaker forced to be a caretaker to his alcoholic single mom. She looks like an accident waiting to happen and, sure enough, a car crash conveniently takes her out of the picture.

The headmistress at Stet’s school, who looks and sounds like Debra Winger--mostly because she is Debra Winger--is aware of his musical potential and has already made plans to get him into the American Boychoir Academy. Gladly footing the bill is Stet’s father (Josh Lucas), who prefers to keep his current family in the dark about his son’s existence.

Once the film shifts to the school grounds, we are suddenly in the glorious company of Dustin Hoffman as the brusquely demanding choirmaster who champions the instinctive Stet, Kathy Bates’ put-upon principal who must contend with petty infighting between staffers as well as students and Eddie Izzard as Hoffman’s fuss-budget underling who would rather be in charge.

They deservedly get their moments to shine, whether it’s Hoffman plaintively playing the piano, Bates berating her bickersome staff or Izzard scheming with his mini-me soloist to upstage Stet, advising him, “If you have to cheat, cheat better.”

But the best reason to see "Boychoir" is the chance to hear "Boychoir." French-Canadian director Francois Girard is sharp enough to realize the value in packing in plenty angelic-voiced a cappella vocal arrangements that truly sound like heaven on earth.

Let’s make this short because it isn’t going to be too sweet. Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton together for the first time. What is not to like, considering how easily they strike up a warm, lived-in rapport with each other in their cozy Brooklyn domicile?

But “Ruth & Alex“ criminally squanders the opportunity to allow fans of both actors to enjoy this special occasion by making a visit with this stand-out couple as mundane as it can be. The basic premise involves waffling about selling their walk-up apartment with a fantastic view mainly because Freeman’s Alex is having trouble negotiating the stairs and hipsters are ruining the neighborhood.

But I have had more interesting days doing housework than spending time witnessing Cynthia Nixon’s high-strung real-estate agent explain how to de-clutter, countless viewings of the place by potential buyers who takes obnoxious New York stereotypes to a new level, visits and phone calls to the vet to check on their sick dog and  shots of a TV showing coverage of a possible terrorist act involving a jack-knifed fuel truck on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Don’t even get me started on the flashbacks involving memories of what their home has meant to their four-decade marriage. When I saw those youthful stand-ins for Freeman and Keaton, it was all I could do to not shout out “Imposters!” at the screen.

The final straw is how what seems to be the final 15 minutes or so is filled with enough bidding negotiations for a week full of “House Hunters" episodes. I’ve seen far more boring films, but few so utterly uneventful.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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