In an effort to bring a few household names to TIFF this year, the programmers leaned heavily on films directed by actors because they could promote the events as the DGA isn’t on strike like the SAG and WGA. This meant films the inclusion of films directed by Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Arquette, Michael Keaton, Viggo Mortensen, Chris Pine, and more. The results were a mixed bag at best, with some of these films that I won’t mention here being regularly cited as the lower tier of this year’s TIFF premieres. The best of the bunch I’ve seen was maybe the most surprising, Anna Kendrick’s “Woman of the Hour,” a confidently made thriller that’s not just a true crime story but an unpacking of systemic misogyny and how it encourages violence.
Kendrick plays Sheryl, a struggling actress in Los Angeles in 1978, who is introduced in another sexist audition in which it seems like her body matters more than her talent. An agent gets her an unexpected gig on a hit show! It just happens to be as a contestant on “The Dating Game.” Kendrick reveals how the institutionalized behavior on a show like “The Dating Game” encourages sexist behavior. Sure, people like the cheesy host (a perfect Tony Hale) would argue it’s all in good fun, but there’s something coded in language like “get the girl” that both infantilizes women and makes them possessions. When Sheryl starts rewriting her questions to make them more interesting, the host rolls his eyes, pushing her out the door when it’s over in a hurry.
Sheryl’s episode of “The Dating Game” would become one of history's most famous game show chapters because of who else was on it: Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto). A few years later, the authorities arrested Alcala after discovering he was a serial rapist and killer. Some estimates place Alcala’s crime spree at over 130 people. And there he was on “The Dating Game,” trying hard to “get the girl.”
Kendrick moves back and forth in time and perspective, capturing in chilling detail a few of Alcala’s crimes that occurred before and after his relatively brief but memorable interaction with Sheryl. She proves to have a firm grip on the thriller genre—it feels like she could handle a legitimate horror film—in scenes in which Alcala goes from charming to vicious. She also handles the behind-the-scenes half of the film well, revealing the ins and outs of one of several cultural phenomena based on gender tropes. Kendrick doesn’t hammer that point too bluntly—she’s not blaming “The Dating Game” for Rodney Alcala—but her film deftly reveals how one exists alongside the other and how often authorities looked the other way when true evil was sitting right there on TV. They might have been too busy watching "The Dating Game."
Gender roles also factor in Christy Scott’s “Daddio,” which earned raves at Telluride for its ambitious structure. A two-hander that takes place almost entirely in a New York cab, Scott’s film is about those random encounters that people sometimes need to reach an internal or emotional destination. While I’m a big fan of single-setting films and two-handers, I found too much of “Daddio” manufactured. It starts with a great deal of promise, and its two leads keep it interesting throughout. But there’s a moment about half an hour in which one of the characters gives one of those deeply insightful monologues, and all I could hear was a writer instead of a real person. The movie never quite got that curtain back in place, making “Daddio” an interesting acting exercise instead of the character study other people seem to see in it.
A woman credited only as Girlie (Dakota Johnson) exits a plane and walks out to a cab, telling the coordinator that she needs to go to midtown Manhattan. She ends up in the back seat of a vehicle driven by Clark (Sean Penn), a tough guy who wishes he had a better name like Vinny, one that would reflect his personality more accurately. He can tell that something is making her emotional, and we see her texting with someone who desperately wants to see her tonight. Or at least get her to send some dirty pics. Who is the guy? Where is his passenger coming from? What’s on her mind?
These questions are answered on the way to midtown as this pair learns things about each other, mostly based on the complex dynamic between women and men. Clark instructs her on his beliefs about what men want from mistresses instead of wives. She reveals she’s the former and with an older man, but she’s starting to question her role and what she wants from this guy.
“Daddio” has modest stakes and avoids melodrama, thanks in large part to another subtle turn from Johnson, who keeps just enough of this character’s secrets in her internal monologue. She’s great, as she almost always is lately. Penn struggles a bit more to avoid the tropes of the “wise cabbie,” but he’s certainly not bad, and it’s nice to see him more prominent on the acting landscape than he has been lately (he’s also, briefly but memorably, in “Gonzo Girl”). Ultimately, “Daddio” is a fine movie, the kind that sometimes produces overreactions at fests, but it has me hoping more for what everyone involved does next than thinking too much about it on its own.
Finally, a unique child centers Warwick Thornton’s deeply personal “The New Boy,” which played in a Cannes sidebar earlier this year. Thornton tells a tale from a dark chapter of his country’s history, when Australia kidnapped Aboriginal children and did everything that they could to destroy their heritage and identity. His film is gorgeous throughout but loses a bit of its power in a back half that seems uncertain of the story it’s telling. Thornton reportedly was inspired to make “The New Boy” from his experiences as a youth, and films like that sometimes lose something in translation from memory/emotion to the big screen. Still, he shoots the landscapes of Australia as well as anyone, and a typically excellent score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis helps make this a consistently interesting experience.
Of course, Cate Blanchett helps, too. The Oscar winner and solid candidate for our best living actress plays Sister Eileen, the head of a troubled monastery in the outback for abandoned children (some of whom weren't actually "abandoned" but kidnapped). Working with only a few other adults on the property, she is morally resolute in her mission to convert the youth under her care. Blanchett gives an expectedly great performance, never resorting to the potential caricature inherent in an evil nun, playing Eileen as a woman who seems fragile in her quiet moments, aware that she’s struggling to maintain a grip on the monastery and even in her own belief.
When the new boy starts showing signs of miraculous powers, it challenges Sister Eileen’s concept of faith. Is he a Christ figure? Not directly, but there’s something embedded in Thornton’s story that’s fascinating—the idea that we are potentially destroying magic by destroying these cultures. What if Christ was converted? The second hour of “The New Boy” truly frustrated me, given the strength of the set-up, but there’s enough quality filmmaking here and conversation starters to justify a look.