Alexander Payne’s latest finishes its fall festival trifecta after premiering at Venice and Telluride while a pair of “smaller” films actually feel like more complete, well-considered efforts, despite their own flaws. “Downsizing” has already become one of the most divisive films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, producing responses all across the board. I know a few critics who consider it one of Payne’s best, but more seem to fall into the “ambitious disappointment” camp, and I may be even a step below that group. It’s easily Payne’s worst film, a work that’s woefully misguided, casually racist, thematically incomplete, and tries to ride on a high concept until a ham-fisted message arrives in the final act to really drive the hypocrisy home.
The concept of “Downsizing” is the kind of thing with which someone like Charlie Kaufman could have worked wonders. As human consumption has essentially destroyed our planet, a group of scientists determines that the only way to reverse the trajectory of time is to minimize not only the waste of our species but our actual size. Think about how much less damage we would do to the planet if we were only a fraction of the size we are now. Imagine how far your dollar could go when 1,000 square foot house looks much, much bigger. Everyone could have a mansion, and produce a negligible amount of planet-damaging waste.
For Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the allure of what has been just outside of their reach becoming available to them through downsizing is too much to ignore. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, the journey to the small life doesn’t go exactly as planned, while Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Hong Chau, and cameos from Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern fill out an undeniably talented cast. Once again, Payne wants to examine the current state of America through a satirical, exaggerated lens.
The problem this time is that I don’t think he knows what he’s looking at. There are plenty of questions in "Downsizing." How do we literally simplify our lives? What should we value? How can one person make a minor difference against major problems? However, none of these are interestingly examined beyond the superficial. Instead, Payne meanders through a surprisingly unfunny narrative about a wanderer, amplified by Damon’s least interesting performance in a very long time. The problem is that Paul needs to be either a Chauncey Billups-esque observer or something more exaggerated than the blank slate Damon presents. There's no character here, and not even in an interesting, non-character way. The idea that this guy just bounces from decision to decision, never making long-term ones, feels underdeveloped thematically, and just leaves us with a film that's as unfocused as its protagonist.
Part of the tonal dilemma presented by “Downsizing” is the bad taste left in the mouth by Payne’s willingness not only to present a remarkable degree of White Savior Complex but then dive headfirst into casual racism in the portrayal of a Vietnamese dissident whose broken English is clearly being played for laughs. Payne has been accused of condescension to his "less refined," Midwestern characters before but I never felt it as strongly as I did here. It feels like there was a version of “Downsizing” that was broader, in which everyone felt satirical, but then certain characters were softened, leaving only a few stereotypes to stand out and offend, along with an overriding sense of superiority from the filmmaker. Throughout “Downsizing,” I kept asking myself what the point of all of this was, never engaged by its hodgepodge of themes. I wish the filmmakers had asked that question too.
If “Downsizing” posits that great things can be achieved by small people, the thriller “Beast” takes a more cynical look at human behavior. It features a truly breakthrough performance (maybe two) and announces writer/director Michael Pearce as a talent to watch. Some have compared it to Andrea Arnold, but that’s a bit unfair in that Pearce’s film embraces the thriller genre a bit more completely, turning into something unexpected and terrifying. I’m not sure it all comes together, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the film became important for introducing us to Pearce, Jessie Buckley, and Johnny Flynn.
Buckley plays Moll, a troubled young woman in a relatively isolated community who doesn’t seem to have many options for adventure or escape. Her family is relatively horrible, forcing her to run off on the very occasion of her birthday party just to escape them. After a night of drinking and clubbing, she ends up in an isolated location with a male stranger, who gets a little too aggressive. Stepping into the rescue is a mysterious stranger named Pascal (Flynn), who becomes Moll’s boyfriend. He’s the opposite of her family—rugged, athletic, and dangerous. Maybe too dangerous. Did I mention there’s a serial killer in town? Even Moll starts to wonder if the “bad boy” is really that bad.
The most daring question that “Beast” asks is whether or not Moll is desperate enough and in love enough to forgive Pascal even if he is a serial killer. Flynn is stellar, blending natural screen charisma and an undercurrent of menace. But the movie belongs to Buckley, a young actress who could easily become a star. She shades Moll with just enough of her own sociopathology that it adds a layer of uncertainty that “Beast” would otherwise lack. We could easily see Moll running off with Pascal in a “Bonnie and Clyde” orgy of violence, or turning her boyfriend in if he ends up being a murderer. She’s fully immersed in the most important chapter of her life to date and Buckley conveys this in ways that don’t feel melodramatic or manipulative. It’s a great performance.
There’s another great performance that anchors the more disappointing drama “Who We Are Now,” a well-intentioned story of a woman struggling for her rights that falls flat in the dialogue apartment even if it contains a few standout performances from underrated actors. The always-phenomenal Julianne Nicholson, also at TIFF in “I, Tonya,” plays Beth, an ex-con who is fighting with her sister to get custody of her child. When she went away for manslaughter, she signed over custody rights, but she did it from a hospital bed and presumed she’d take the mother role back when she got out. In the meantime, her sister didn’t even tell the child about her mother, and he thinks Beth is his aunt. Participating in the legal battle to come is an idealistic young attorney named Jess (Emma Roberts) and her boss (Jimmy Smits). Zachary Quinto co-stars as a love interest for Beth while Jason Biggs appears as a scumbag who takes advantage of Beth’s situation.
There are talented people involved in “Who We Are Now,” including “From Nowhere” writer/director Matthew Newton, but I fundamentally didn’t believe too much of what happens in this low-key drama. On one level, it’s designed to be a character piece, but it’s also too eager to make statements and too willing to embrace caricatures. Of course, Jess’ mother is the materialistic opposite of her daughter. Of course, the counsel opposing Smits (played by Gloria Reuben) is cavalierly cruel. Of course, we’ll learn the details of Beth’s crime in an emotional climax. “Who We Are Now” just ticks too many cliched boxes, particularly in the dialogue department. People don’t as often say what they’re thinking and feeling and needing as these characters do. Buried in all of that is another great performance from Nicholson (and a reminder that I wish Smits did more film work), but it’s not enough to save the film overall.