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TIFF 2023: Finestkind, Ezra, One Life

It’s funny to see themes emerge at film festivals, leading us to ask why the current artistic landscape is communally interested in certain topics. Stories of authors are prevalent here, including everyone from Hunter S. Thompson to Flannery O’Connor, but, at least for this critic, TIFF has been very much about families. There are the sister/father relationships at the core of the great “His Three Daughters” and disappointing “North Star,” and there are a number of films about fathers and sons, including two star-studded ones that premiered this weekend and a third melodrama that may not directly be about parenting but is undeniably about protecting children.

Brian Helgeland (“Legend,” the Tom Hardy one, not Cruise) leans heavily into the Paramount+ Original logo that opens his “Finestkind,” a film that feels directly aimed at fans of dad-centric shows like “Yellowstone” or “Mayor of Kingstown.” The always-good Ben Foster delivers here with an intriguing, subtle performance, and he’s well-matched by the legendary Tommy Lee Jones, but the rest of the cast (except for a supporting player who shows up late to nearly steal the movie) can’t find the same page. This is one of those frustrating dramas wherein it feels like different cast members are making different movies. Foster’s is a grounded character piece; everyone else is doing melodrama. He’s so much more nuanced here than his castmates that it starts to feel like an unfair fight, like watching Tom Brady on a field with a bunch of rookies.

Foster plays a very Baaahston area fisherman named Tom, who works a trawler out of New Bedford. The film opens with his younger brother Charlie (Toby Wallace) asking to spend the summer with him on the ship, but the damn thing sinks the first time they go out, leaving the pair in a hole that they will basically try to dig out of for the rest the movie. With a squad of three other dudes who believe fishing is life, they agree to take out a ship owned by Tom’s basically estranged pop (Jones), who happens to be dying of cancer. Guess what? That venture goes sideways, too, but in a way even more dangerous than a hull taking on water. Without spoiling much, Clayne Crawford makes a meal out of a snack of a part as a Boston tough guy that a Wahlberg would have played 20 years ago, and poor Jenna Ortega is woefully miscast as a love interest for Charlie.

About Charlie. He’s the lead of “Finestkind,” the guy accused of being a blue-collar tourist before he gets back on track to be the attorney his dad wants him to be. The concept of placing two brothers of very different social and class strata in the same predicaments to see how they respond differently is a smart one. And yet the script for “Finestkind” never leans into it, and poor Wallace is stuck with an inconsistent character he doesn’t know what to do with. Bluntly, Foster and Jones look like they existed in this world before the cameras went on—Wallace and Ortega look like they’re playing dress-up. It doesn’t help that the script gets weighed down with clichéd dialogue as it gets more melodramatic. So much so that lines meant to be powerful were greeted by unintended laughter at the screening. Maybe it will work better at home.

A very different father-son relationship plays out in Tony Goldwyn’s “Ezra,” a passion project for the director/actor who has proven himself a gifted filmmaker when it comes to performance with films like “A Walk on the Moon” and “Conviction.” He collaborates with a trio of stellar performers here, finding subtle beats for all of them, but he’s hampered by a script that too often relies on forced emotion and convenient plotting. “Ezra” has small moments that really work, but they’re overshadowed by the big ones that feel overwritten and manufactured. Still, it’s worth noting that anyone who has struggled with conflict over how to raise a child with autism will find something emotional to hold onto in this personal production for Goldwyn and his team. I just wanted more for Ezra and his family.

The title character (William A. Fitzgerald) is the son of Max (Bobby Cannavale) and Jenna (Rose Byrne), who have split up but collaborate on major decisions around Ezra’s life. Ezra has been diagnosed with autism, which manifests in traits as varied as the fact he’s read the New York Times since he was five and he can only use plastic silverware when he eats. More urgently, he’s been lashing out at school, and it’s led to the suggestion that he should be medicated and sent to a private facility. Jenna seems behind the idea, but Max is having none of it. A struggling stand-up comedian, Max uses his stage time to work out his family issues in public, but the disagreements over Ezra ultimately lead to Max kidnapping his son and heading cross-country. As Max outruns an Amber Alert to do an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Jenna tries to enlist the help of Max’s father (Robert De Niro), who has his own doubts over decisions he made when his son was young.

As a father of sons myself, I can attest to the uncertainty surrounding major decisions like how to treat a child with special needs, and I do think that there’s a truthful core at the center of “Ezra” that’s trying to reflect a common dynamic in households around the world. But why does it have to be surrounded by so much contrivance? There are smart, sweet little beats in “Ezra”—I particularly loved the way Byrne would calm Max by touching his ear—and I wanted Goldwyn’s film to linger in those moments instead of pushing a goofy plot about getting to Los Angeles to be on a talk show, a journey that takes them to cameos by Rainn Wilson and Vera Farmiga, by the way. The three leads do a lot of heavy lifting—I would love to see Cannavale in more lead roles—but “Ezra” ultimately succumbs to manipulative plotting when it needs to be heartfelt.

Speaking of forced emotion, the tears will flow for anyone who sees James Hawes’ “One Life,” but that’s truly only because of the inherent power of the true story being told here. It’s the classic Roger quote: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” What “One Life” is about is powerful, but this is not a powerfully made film. One could get the same emotional kick from watching the talk show clip that inspired this production. To be fair, Sir Anthony Hopkins does no wrong here, of course, and makes several smart decisions to ground his character, but he’s only in roughly half the film, and the rest is about as standardly made as a Wikipedia entry.

Hopkins plays the elderly Nicholas Winton, who is introduced in the ‘80s as he’s going through his belongings to reduce some of the clutter around the home he shares with his wife (Lena Olin). Going through old photographs, he finds shots of the children he saved in 1938, leading to extensive flashbacks in which Johnny Flynn plays Winton. In that year, an ordinary stockbroker became a hero when he coordinated the transport of hundreds of children to safety as the war began. “One Life” becomes a half-memory piece as the older Winton comes to terms with what he did in his youth and a war movie as the younger Winton races to save more lives.

Clearly, the message that history could have used more men as brave as Nicholas Winton is an undeniable one, but a film is more than its subject matter. “One Life” is delivered in such a bland, straightforward manner that even its heightened story doesn’t feel like it has real stakes. Helena Bonham Carter does what she can to add some truth to the flashbacks as Winton’s mother, but it all feels too much like a costume piece with no real dirt under its nails or danger around the corner. It lacks the urgency that must have surely pulsed through every day that these people chose to save lives. They’re legitimate heroes who deserve all the attention in the world. They also deserve a better movie.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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