There’s a section of this year’s TIFF that’s not open to the public at limited capacity screenings in the city of Toronto or even online in this year's virtual edition. Much of Toronto’s program every year is unowned, films seeking distribution via press and industry screenings and premieres, but that portion of the 2020 virtual iteration feels a little different. Under a banner called Industry Selects, these are reportedly films that would have been at venues in Toronto if there was a normal festival this year. So they may be kind of on the outside compared to films that TIFF is advertising as “Gala” or “Discovery,” but that’s a product of COVID and not their quality. I checked out three such films this weekend with decidedly mixed results.
Evan Morgan writes and directs “The Kid Detective,” a decent dramedy with a horrible title. The title refers to Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody), who found success as a crime solver as a kid. He was one of those adorable tykes who had a desk in his treehouse and took cases from neighborhood kids, getting the most attention for solving who stole the money from a school fundraiser. Popular around town, a young Abe thought he might be the smartest guy in the world. And then something major happened. A local girl named Grace went missing, and Abe became obsessed with trying to find her and was destroyed when he couldn’t solve the case.
As an adult, Abe is still trying to solve cases, but he spends most of his days drunk or hungover. He has an apathetic assistant named Lucy (Sarah Sutherland), but his parents (Jonathan Whittaker & Wendy Crewson) are tired of the detective schtick and annoyed that their over-30 son has so little purpose. At its core, “The Kid Detective” is about what happens when we don’t fulfill the dreams of our youth, and how easy it can be to wallow in what’s undone. Abe didn’t become the smartest guy in the world and Grace never came home. Then Abe gets a new case when a local girl named Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) asks him to solve the recent murder of her boyfriend. This is a real case and Abe sees it as a chance at redemption.
“The Kid Detective” is wryly humorous for its first hour or so before getting notably darker, but there’s an undercurrent of melancholy in Brody’s performance throughout that works. Too much of it kind of feels like an aborted TV series visually, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do, even presenting two engaging mysteries. At times it reminded me of other droll P.I. films like “Zero Effect” or “Brick,” and I remembered that I wish there were still making more movies like this, films about people solving mysteries and their life problems at the same time.
Speaking of life problems, Ruth (Jessica Barden) has a lot of them in Nicole Riegel’s “Holler,” a film that’s been earning good buzz since a virtual SXSW premiere and has now found its way to Toronto looking for a buyer. What works here is almost entirely in Barden’s performance. The star of the excellent “The End of the F**king World” anchors Riegel’s film even as it struggles with that gray area between melodrama and realism. There’s a bit too much in “Holler” that feels like its reaching for the working-class realism of a Debra Granik or even a Ken Loach movie, but it comes up short of those goals by feeling as manipulative as it does believable. Still, there’s something in Barden’s performance that elevates it over some rough patches. She’s going to be a major star.
Ruth lives in one of those Ohio cities that the changing face of industry has practically turned into a ghost town. As plants closed and job opportunities dried up, chances for Ruth and her family went with them. With her mother (Pamela Adlon) behind bars, Ruth and her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) take care of each other just enough to get through each day, but then Ruth’s caring sibling goes and applies his sister to college behind her back. How could they possibly afford that? They end up on a scrap metal crew, illegally breaking into closed buildings to pull and sell their scrap. It’s a dangerous existence, people on the edge of society literally tearing down the monuments to the industry that has destroyed their American Dream.
Shot on 16mm, “Holler” looks good but there’s something manufactured about too much of the dialogue and narrative twists. It’s the difference between something that feels lived in like “Winter’s Bone” and something that feels more artificial and “Holler” tends too far to the latter. I think I’ll be in the minority and would encourage buyers to take a look just to say they were on the Barden team early. She has incredible range and looks like she could fit into any genre. As much as “Holler” disappointed me overall, I can’t wait to see where Barden goes from here.
Less effective in any way is Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ “Monday,” a chronicle of a relationship between two beautiful people in a beautiful location that never clicks. A lack of chemistry between the leads and dialogue that sounds heavily scripted more often than natural are only two problems here, but the leaden pacing is the biggest. A film like this needs to move with the same energy of the tempestuous partnership at the center of its story but this film runs 116 minutes for no logical reason, with scenes that go on well past their breaking point. It needed an overhaul at the screenwriting stage to focus this haphazard storytelling and needs a much tighter edit now if it’s going to appeal to an audience, even the many Stan stans out there.
Yes, “Monday” stars Bucky himself, the charismatic Sebastian Stan, who plays a DJ named Mickey in a gorgeous Greek city who meets a vivacious, outgoing traveler named Chloe (Denise Gough) in the opening scene. The two hook up instantly, waking up together naked on the beach. They alternate conversation and sex over the next couple days before deciding if they actually want to still be together on Monday, if you will.
None of it is interesting. The setting is gorgeous, but the dialogue between Mickey and Chloe is inane and unrealistic. I was hoping for a relationship dramedy like Richard Linklater’s “Before” movies about two strangers who slowly realize they’re never going to be strangers again, but I got a movie about two people who are so frustrating and annoying that even though they may deserve each other, there’s no reason you deserve them too.