Friday night is when the Toronto International Film Festival really explodes as more journalists, industry folk, and stars arrive to take in everything the event has to offer. In one part of town, upcoming theatrical releases like “Bros” and “The Woman King” were having their world premieres (click through for reviews of both), but I focused this year on what could be considered smaller films from this section of the fest, including a small Canadian drama that I hope gets very, very big.
Clement Virgo’s “Brother” is that wonderful thing every fest goer wants to experience: the unexpected standout. It's easily the best premiere of the early days of the fest for me. Virgo unabashedly admires the work of Barry Jenkins, particularly “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and I feel like there’s a dash of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” movies in here too, but he’s also got his own confident, lyrical voice. His complex film unpacks Black grief in a way we haven’t really seen that often. We’ve seen many stories about struggle and violence, but rarely the emotional and even physical toll that it takes on loved ones and an entire community.
“Brother” is a moving drama about a young man forced in a sense to be a patriarch—he protects his younger brother whenever possible—but is also a vulnerable human being in his own right, one who knows about the potential danger around every corner. Still, he refuses to look down in shame or retreat in fear. And then Virgo's script, based on the book by David Chariandy, mirrors that with another young man, a brother, forced to be a protector too.
The phenomenal Aaron Pierre (“The Underground Railroad”) plays Francis and Lamar Johnson (“The Hate U Give”) plays his younger brother Michael. They are Jamaican-Canadian boys living in an area of Toronto known as Scarborough in the 1990s, as violence is starting to rise in their community. Their mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) has to work late hours to put food on the table, and so Francis becomes a guardian of sorts, protecting young Michael when he’s scared and teaching him how to be a man. At the same time, the film tracks Michael ten years later, revealing early that Francis is dead in that half of the film, and Ruth has been nearly catatonic with grief since. When Aisha (Kiana Madeira), an old girlfriend of Michael’s, returns to see them, Ruth barely even moves. Michael says she doesn’t speak much, and Johnson strikingly carries the weight of a someone forced into stasis by not just grief but to protect his mother. The difference in body language between young, naïve Michael and the one who is still haunted by his brother’s death is subtle but captivating.
There are so many details just like that in “Brother,” from its mesmerizing sound design to a beautiful score by Todor Kobakov (that’s clearly meant to recall Nicholas Britell, but he pulls it off) to the way Virgo captures the geography and feeling of his setting. He’s so good at conveying the location of people in a space, whether it’s the apartment that we come to know so well, the dangerous streets around it, or a party at which these increasingly troubled characters and just smile and move. There’s such gracefulness to the filmmaking here, cutting back and forth across time, building like a thriller because of our awareness that Francis will die but never losing sight of its characters along the way.
It helps a great deal to have talents like Pierre, Johnson, Blake, and Madeira in what is largely a four-character piece for most of the runtime—it should be noted that Lovell Adams-Gray is also very good in a crucial role in the final act too. Pierre is such a captivating performer, someone with an incredible physical presence but also a deep emotional current in his body language and those eyes. He understands that Francis is at that age when he wants something more than a predictable future of menial labor and he’s getting increasingly frustrated by the disappointments of his life. Johnson matches him beat for beat, seeing how Francis is taking greater risks and realizing that his brother's confidence could soon be dangerous. And then there’s Blake, who conveys bone-deep grief and trauma in a way that never feels manipulative.
“Brother” is the kind of film that I hope gets a major distributor, but worry will get stuck in the fest circuit and never go wider. It’s too good to let that happen. This movie deserves your attention.
Of course, it helps to have a star if you’re trying to get over that hump to wide release, and Gabe Polsky’s “Butcher’s Crossing” has a huge one in Nicolas Cage, riding a wave of acclaim for films like “Pig” and “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.” The Cage here isn’t quite as subdued as the arthouse one of recent years but there also won’t be YouTube clips of his performance. It’s somewhere in between, and, sadly, a little inconsistent. He never quite figures out the degree of menace of this Western villain, but that’s mostly a product of a film that’s just too inert and too superficial to dig into the deep philosophical underpinnings of its source.
Co-writers Polsky and Liam Satre-Meloy adapt the beloved 1960 novel by John Williams, one of the first such books to really deconstruct the Old West in literary form—I haven’t read the book but did some research to see how it differs and saw a few comparisons to Cormac McCarthy if you’re looking for a tone. The story takes place in the 1870s as journeys to the West are starting to produce fewer and fewer positive results. And yet that region still had that draw, even for a kid from Harvard named Will Andrews (Fred Hechinger), who leaves it all behind to find purpose in the Rockies. (In the book, he’s apparently inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson.) Of course, anyone who’s seen a Western knows that the city kid is going to learn a thing or two about the brutality of country life.
Will hooks up with a buffalo hunter named Miller (Cage), an imposing figure who speaks of a valley he once found stocked with thousands of the beasts, enough to retire from the profits achieved by selling their pelts. Will agrees to fund a hunting trip and the pair head out with two other travelers, a Bible thumper (Xander Berkeley) and a wild card (Jeremy Bobb). Oscar nominee Paul Raci and the great Rachel Keller play relatively thankless roles back in town, but the majority of the film consists of four men on the trail, and at least one of them may not be completely sane. I’ll give you one guess who.
“Butcher’s Crossing” isn’t a depressing slog, but it does have one giant fatal flaw in that its protagonist is kind of a black hole. We simply don’t know enough about Will to care what happens to him and his progression from Harvard kid to buffalo hunter feels merely like a function of the plot. It’s not Hechinger’s fault, and I bet the character is richer on the page, but this seems like an adaptation that hits the plot points of its source while missing most of the meaning between the lines.
A similarly dull quality pervades Stephen Frears’ disappointing “The Lost King,” a reunion of the Oscar-nominated director with the writers of his Oscar-nominated “Philomena,” Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. They adapt the true story of Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins), a divorced mother of two who became obsessed with correcting the record and finding the remains of King Richard III. There’s some fascinating material here about revisionist history—the idea being that people have come to accept Shakespeare’s version of the deformed, usurper king—and how sometimes it takes a unique person to fix the errors of the past. It’s all perfectly fine in terms of true storytelling—the kind of “did you read about the housewife who corrected Shakespeare” anecdote one might tell over a drink—but maybe sometimes the legend is more exciting than the truth.
We meet Philippa at a job she hates with an ex-husband (Coogan) who drops off their sons on his way to his dates with online matches. She’s also dealing with a physical malady of her own, which draws her closer to the story of Richard III after she sees a production of the play with her oldest son. Was he really deformed? Was he really an illegitimate leader? Suddenly, she’s seeing Richard everywhere, literally. He haunts her as she becomes involved with the Richard III Society, a group of amateurs who sit around and talk about what history got wrong about the king but don’t seem to do much about it beyond angrily raising a pint. Langley is ready for action even as historians and bureaucrats try to talk her out of it.
At its core, “The Lost King” is an underdog story, a tale of a woman who was done being pushed around by the men who seemed to take joy in telling her she was wrong. Hawkins is expectedly solid, finding Philippa's balance of being frustrated but growing confidence. People who like the film will do so largely for what she brings to it. Her work was almost enough for me, but it’s a classic case of the true story, and probably the book that first told the true story, being more interesting than the movie about it.