Film festivals aren’t for everyone. Even if you’re attending one purely as a film lover (and not as a journalist, who often has to write multiple pieces a day on little food and sleep after seeing several movies), running a marathon between addiction dramas, hopeless love stories and dark character studies can take a strange toll on a person. The longer the affair lasts, the lonelier it all feels, percolating a strange sense of identity crisis in one’s mind. Eventually, the experiences of on-screen personas densely seep into one’s own empathetic core, creating personal questions without answers.
It is when such visceral uncertainties started coming into sharper focus at the midpoint of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (which I attended on the heels of the 45th Telluride Film Festival) that I saw three films on consecutive days, featuring characters grappling with profound doubts around their identity. Whether or not you relate to their crisis (sometimes, self-inflicted and other times, downright infuriating) is beside the point—the experience of watching people tiptoe around whom they are or supposed to be when you are ready to shed off your own (festival) skin and start a clean page as a changed person, is staggeringly trippy.
The gentlest of these films is French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Maya,” which follows a war journalist as he gets released after four months of captivity in Syria. Soulfully played by her repeat collaborator Roman Kolinka, Gabriel first spends his days in Paris, reuniting with his ex-girlfriend, father and friend circles, always wearing his deeply melancholic discomfort on his sleeve. Loosely inspired by her own grandfather, who was a charismatic war correspondent—her films always have some small element of personal history—Hansen-Løve paints Gabriel with compassionate touches, generously honoring his reserved observance, while side-stepping the common beats you’d expect from someone in his situation. Gabriel shows no interest in being stuck in the same place, engaging in long psychotherapy sessions or sweaty sleepless nights after his traumatic time in a warzone. Instead, he chooses to be on the move.
And that is not a surprise, at least for anyone who followed Hansen-Løve’s previous characters, like “Eden”’s ambitious, dream-chasing DJ Paul Vallée or Nathalie, the recently divorced idealist of “Things to Come.” Obliquely following their resilient lead, the late-twenties/early-thirties Gabriel heads to his childhood home in Goa in order to both escape and find himself in the process. There, he meets Maya (impressive newcomer Aarshi Banerjee), the young daughter of Gabriel’s Godfather, who runs an eco-friendly touristic hotel. The two become friends straightaway—not unlike Richard Linlater’s “Before” series’ Jesse and Celine, their friendship deepens during lazy sun-dappled afternoons spent by the sea and through philosophical conversations that flourish around life. Always an expert builder of tension (which includes sexual tension), Hansen-Løve softly leads the viewer into the palpable chemistry forming between the duo and sensually captures their eventual union, landing on a intensely earned first kiss. Neither promising a happily-ever-after nor signaling an overblown romantic doom, she builds these two characters searching for something more from the ground up, as they cross paths in their respective journeys. “Maya” isn’t the filmmaker’s best work—the English dialogue, sometimes awkwardly delivered by self-conscious characters not working within their native tongue—feels a bit wooden. Still, this tenderly shot film with an intriguing soundtrack (with repeat excerpts of Schubert’s Serenade) claims a worthy spot in her catalog.
Then came the most complicated film around a search for identity: Justin Kelly’s based-on-a-true-story “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy.” Starring a mind-bogglingly fitting Kristen Stewart in the role of Savannah Knoop, who spent six years in the fake shoes of the renowned yet completely fabricated author JT LeRoy, Kelly’s feature is based on Knoop’s memoir and grapples with individuality, sexuality, sexism and to some degree, even ageism in both entertainment and the literary world. The fake author named JT LeRoy was invented by Knoop’s sister-in-law Laura Albert (Laura Dern, who makes playing multiple characters look so easy), a writer living a double life. Having pretended to be the successful, mysterious JT on the phone to journalists for years, she reaches a point where she needs a collaborating avatar. Her prayers get answered when she meets her beau Geoffrey’s sister Savannah; a quiet, awkward and shyly charismatic bi-sexual woman less than thrilled with the idea. In no time at all though, Laura lures her into playing JT, talking up the power of roleplay and the realness it can possess. At an aimless spot with her own life, Savannah reluctantly accepts her incident proposal. Enter clumsy wigs, grungy clothes and an Asia Argento-like film diva (Diane Kruger), adamant to bring one of LeRoy’s books to screen.
Identities within identities, the true tale of a fraud and society’s willingness to buy entertainment at face value already make “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” a rich and rewarding watch; but when the individual trajectories of Savannah and Laura clash in competitive and destructive ways, the film deepens even further. Laura instinctually knows her real identity could only have gotten her so far in her field. Whereas Savannah temporarily settles in for the fake image she hides beneath, perhaps feeling freer and more powerful in her skin than she’s ever felt. Kelly’s script is a little too head-on with the events—the focus naturally remains on Savannah, yet the story feels in desperate need of further development of Laura in the first act. Similarly, Savannah’s boyfriend Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) feels like an after-thought and the end reveal produces less than thrilling results. Still, Kelly’s film is largely entertaining, set in a world where everyone is playing someone else, even when they seem like their own (branded) selves.
Among the hardest watches of the entire festival and also the literal rendering of being uncomfortable in one’s skin is Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s first US-set film “Skin,” starring the incredibly versatile actor Jamie Bell and “Patti Cake$” star Danielle Macdonald. Bell plays Bryon Widner, a real-life white supremacist who, in 2006, decided to leave the racist collective he’d been a part of his entire life. Consequently, through the help of One People’s Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center, he also made a pledge to remove his racist face and body tattoos through excruciatingly painful procedures over the course of several months. (The process has become the subject of a TV documentary called “Erasing Hate.”) In the role of Bryon, Bell draws a believable portrait of a despicable human being, finally facing his own evil and standing up to his clan, ran by Fred (Bill Camp) and Shareen (Vera Farmiga). Yet he doesn’t become really vocal about his growing doubts until a new young boy enters the ranks (only to be fed and have a place to sleep) and Widner meets and falls in love with Julie Larsen (Macdonald), a single mother of three kids.
Widner’s journey often gets interrupted by the stylized scenes of tattoo removing, with title cards explaining to us exactly how many procedures he’s already gone through and what the current one entrails, accompanied by sensationalist tracks. While these images are frightening and look realistically painful, they aren’t effective in gathering our empathy for Widner, as his journey towards a change of heart gets sold short by the film—we find ourselves craving to know more. The murdering of his well-behaved Rottweiler in the hands of his former family similarly feels ill calculated in pulling the audience on Widner’s side. (Dog people: this tragedy is signposted clearly, yet be warned.) “Skin” is anchored by layered performances, especially by Bell, who manages to bring forward Widner’s late-awakening compellingly. But while “American History X” and this year’s Sundance-winning (and still distribution-less) drama “Burden” do a better job of capturing a journey of self-reconciliation, "Skin" leaves a lasting impression as it peels off a shameful past.