I don’t think you’ll find a more somber collection of films than in my second dispatch from the Toronto International Film Festival. Each work includes direct links to death and the ways that fact of life can rock our foundation; they also also center forlorn women dealing with their grief with, at times, self-destructive means. And yet, they’re life-affirming narratives that transcend time, place, and culture. These are three films that remain within you long after the credits roll.
I’m still not sure if I like Sebastián Lelio’s desolate, Ireland-set drama “The Wonder,” or if I’m more fascinated by its obvious failures. Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s same-titled novel, it follows Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), a nurse called toward the Irish Midlands to observe a girl, Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who reportedly has not eaten food in four months. Is this a miracle from God? Or is this a town trying to put itself on the map as a religious pilgrimage?
Lib confronts the uneasy politics of the situation—where the town leaders, patronizing old men, desperately want this story to be true—through her steadfast professionalism. Unlike the rest of Ireland, Lib doesn’t really believe in miracles. She believes in the observable. Nevertheless, she and Anna form a quick bond over the course of this slow-burn thriller that unearths the pain lurking within both women in a country hellbent on deciding the agency of their bodies.
Considering the events of “The Wonder” take place in the immediate shadow of the Great Famine, the initial themes find quick resonance. And yet, there are so many areas where Lelio’s film falters: It’s another movie where the loss of a child unmoors a woman. Which makes sense for the era, when an entire younger generation was wiped out by starvation or by fleeing to other countries, but Lib perpetually feels incomplete as a career woman. She desperately wants a family. A fast-boiling romance between Lib and a visiting London journalist, William Byrne (Tom Burke), stretches the bounds of belief more than any miracle, as it’s impossible to envision how these two people could ever be attracted to each other.
Pugh gives a restrained, wholly felt performance that often carries the film's languid portions. But "The Wonder" remains interested in the immense suffering felt by its characters at the hands of a draconian religion, and is not terribly taken by their humanity. And I can’t get over the film's well-conceived aesthetics (I won’t spoil the surprising opening and closing shots that are inventive and unforgettable). Still, the harrowing, bleak film that is “The Wonder” is a failure. Albeit, a fascinating earworm of a failure at that.
Film festivals aren’t just about making the next big premiere, they’re also about finding a gem so small, so undeservedly underseen that you hate everyone for making it a secret. Writer/director Marian Mathias’ feature debut, “Runner,” a tactile yet timeless, brutally midwestern story, is that movie.
During its compact 76 minutes, it’s difficult to pin down exactly when its events take place; such purposeful ambiguity provides just enough subtle mystery for this simple plot to feel untold, as though it only exists in the quickly fading memory of the few people who lived it. Here, the father of a reserved 18-year-old named Haas (a profound Hannah Schiller) dies unexpectedly. Though he often promised her a life in a home on the river, he died as a charlatan loaded with debt. To bury him, she must travel to a secluded corner of downstate Illinois where no one seems to remember his existence.
Nothing in “Runner” develops particularly fast (though the pacing is swift). That’s because of Mathias’ fully felt editing, which perfectly captures the relaxed, unhurried rhythms of small-town midwest life. It’s an existence that works around the weather: Heavy rains cause Haas to extend her stay due to the gravesite being flooded. It’s a place of drawn-out conversations and a niceness that hides judgment, as seen in the soft-spoken elderly purveyor of a modest inn.
Here, Haas meets a soft-spoken boy, Will (Darren Houle), who’s traveling to find work so he might support his parents out west. At points, the friendship that forms between them recalls the work of Kelly Reichardt, who often focuses her attention on characters surviving on the margins of the margins in desolate areas. Will and Haas bond from their shared sense that they’re one more tragedy away from falling off the edge.
The sumptuous cinematography of "Runner" features an evocative use of heavy shadows by Jomo Fray (“Selah and the Spades”), bearing similarities to Terrence Malick and the textured works of photographer Alec Soth. The play with darkness in these compositions is another character in a movie where, on its face, not much happens. But make no mistake, this is a powerful story about two people finding each other when they most need support. It’s small, yet powerful in its interrogation of grief. "Runner" is a gorgeously wrought film by a burgeoning filmmaker already unafraid to fully excavate the fragments of sadness that sink into the mud of time.
Kôji Fukada’s forlorn melodrama “Love Life,” begins with celebration and ends in resignation. It’s a story filled with messy feelings, and even messier actions. Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and Jiro (Kento Nagayama) are preparing a party to not just celebrate the 65th birthday of the latter’s stern and old-fashioned father, but to congratulate their brilliant six-year-old son for winning a championship in the game “Othello.” Under the smiles in this family, however, lurks an abyss of resentment and regret that reveals itself when tragedy suddenly strikes.
Taeko and Jiro are both introverted lovers, the kind who could be in a room together for decades yet never look each other in the eye. Fukada relishes the mysteries between these two despondent beings and slowly widens the gulf separating them, allowing the slippery dialogue to let critical bits of backstory bob to the surface. In the process, Jiro’s mother finds comfort in religion, an ex-girlfriend appears, and an ex-husband returns.
While the film’s pacing somehow slows in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, it picks up speed again once it pulls Taeko, a woman surrounded by emotionally selfish men, into focus. As a grieving mother, Kimura uses her emotive physicality, a stillness and stiffness in her body that stops you in your tracks, to provide poignant portraits of grief. The indelible framing by cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto and the film's meditative editing bring her unmoored heart into sharper relief.
Conversely, Jiro’s evident grief never attains the same level of mournfulness as his spouse. You nearly despise him by the end in a way that doesn’t happen with the equally flawed Taeko, whose paternalistic instincts patroniz her deaf ex-husband to embarrassing results. In a film this chaotic, the ending is also probably far too neat. Still, a somber spirit propels “Love Life,” a vital melodrama about the difficulty of moving on.