Matt’s 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Diary

While we continue to endure abnormal conditions, it’s a delight to see the Toronto International Film Festival return during the unofficial start of awards season. I am ecstatic to be covering the long-traditioned fest for the first time as a member of the press. Over the next week, I will be engulfing a series of snacks as I try to highlight as many of the festival’s offerings as possible. Some of my coverage will feature full-length reviews, while other indie entries will be covered in the form of bite-sized reviews. Either way, let’s get this show on the road!

Violet – Directed by Justine Bateman

Violet Synopsis: Violet (Olivia Munn) realizes that her entire life is built on fear-based decisions and must do everything differently to become her true self.

Actress Justine Bateman makes her written/directorial debut with Violet –a visceral manifestation of angst and self-doubt set in Hollywood’s male-dominant world. Bateman imbues bold visceral imagery to extenuate Violet’s internal struggles, and while her choices don’t always land, the writer/director creates an affecting portrait of an all-too-familiar reality. 

Violet’s sincere intentions take off due to a career-best performance from Olivia Munn. The actress skillfully manifests Violet’s insular pains through a balance of subtle techniques, communicating her wave of frustration and angst from each longing gaze. Her journey through a toxic workplace filled with judgemental peers showcases the sexist undertones that permeate our society while still injecting personal steaks from Violet’s day-to-day struggles. 

Where Violet will divide audiences is its abrasive use of style. Bateman deploys a range of bold visual (the color grading changes to reflect emotions) and audio (Justin Theroux narrates Violet’s negative inner-voice) techniques to place viewers in the character’s perspective. These inclusions land with a mixed bag of impacts. Certain elements dig under the surface of Violet’s timid persona, while others stand as clumsy representations of potent emotions. Bateman’s narrative also isn’t without inconsistencies, as the script often plays out as a series of vignettes that lack a driving center. 

Violet modulates between moments of powerful emotion and bits of stagnant drama. That said, Bateman and Munn’s well-articulated work creates a worthwhile portrait of its potent subject matter. 

Encounter – Directed by Michael Pearce

Encounter Synopsis: Two young brothers (Lucian-River Chauhun and Aditya Geddada) go on the run with their father (Riz Ahmed), a decorated Marine, who is trying to protect them from an inhuman threat. As the journey takes them in increasingly dangerous and unexpected directions, the boys will need to confront hard truths and leave their childhood behind.

Encounter is one of TIFF’s most intriguing prospects. Writer/director Michael Pearce (who co-wrote the film with Joe Barton) borrows from the 80’s science fiction playbook to set the table for a tale of rekindling family dynamics. From there, Pearce subverts viewers’ expectations in a sincere yet uneven family road trip. 

Pearce deserves praise for his assured craftsmanship. The director keenly stays two steps ahead of the audience’s expectations, redefining traditional sci-fi trademarks through his refreshingly grounded touch. When the film finds its narrative groove, Pearce crafts a meaningful portrait of a disconnected family rekindling their distant bond. Riz Ahmed’s empathetic work guides Encounter through its distinct twist and turns. He paints the paternal Malik with brutal honesty, balancing the character’s loving tendencies and extreme habits without a false moment. Young stars Lucian-River Chauhun and Aditya Geddada also offer affecting performances as Malik’s spirited sons. 

I appreciate the bold switch-up Pearce embraces with the film’s distinctly different second half, but the choice presents some weaknesses. The change brings intriguing meditations on the exceedingly relevant subject matter. However, Pearce’s well-intended ruminations are often over-delivered without proper nuance. I wish the breathless and unnecessarily action-filled second half took more time to sit with its characters, as the film lands like a great concept that lacks proper shading. 

Inconsistencies aside, Encounter strikes a resonant journey from its character-driven road trip. 

DASHCAM – Directed by Rob Savage

Dashcam Synopsis: Annie Hardy (played by Hardy) is a toxic streamer who gains views from her polarizing perspective. Once she picks up a seemingly mundane delivery, Annie endures a supernatural force that stalks her every move. 

Rob Savage shattered the horror mold with 2020’s The Host – an inspired and fiercely crafted Zoom scare-fest that intelligently utilized its COVID-19 conditions. His second feature, DASHCAM, expands the director’s range in a found footage/social media-infused horror film. While results will vary with audiences, I had a blast with Savage’s sardonic take on social media’s vapid culture. 

DASHCAM’s ability to enthrall hinges on the viewer’s tolerance for the film’s loud-mouthed protagonist Annie. Savage creates an abrasive amalgam of social media’s worst tendencies – hodgepodging conspiracy theorist rhetoric and a general lack of empathy into Annie’s meandering journey for clicks. Her repelling presence serves as a humorously mean-spirited guide through Savage’s relentless series of bloody encounters. Savage further showcases his adept understanding of the genre, uncorking several patient scares while infectiously tossing buckets of bloodshed onscreen. 

I enjoyed DASHCAM slightly more than Savage’s universally praised debut, but both films suffer from their inherent lack of narrative structure. The writer/director deserves praise for infusing some worthwhile portraits of social media influencers’ ghastly actions. However, there isn’t an established thematic core to boost these entertaining frames into something more substantial.  

DASHCAM indulges in its vile characters and horror with winning results. I am excited to see how Savage continues to grow as a voice in horror. 

Lakewood – Directed by Philip Noyce

Lakewood Synopsis: A mother (Naomi Watts) desperately races against time to rescue her child as authorities place her small town on lockdown due to a school shooting.

Veteran craftsman Philip Noyce injects his distinct thriller edge in Lakewood – a race-against-time narrative that plays to the standards of Hollywood norms. Noyce and screenwriter Chris Sparling conjure a breathless experience that lacks in terms of substance and naturalism. 

Even in a film that doesn’t work, Naomi Watts continues to provide a sturdy presence onscreen. Without having much in terms of backstory, Watts’s balance of hyperactive mania and subdued pains morphs the empty character into an engaging presence. Aside from Watts, Lakewood is a vehicle consistently stuck in the wrong gear. 

I can see where Sparling’s script could work in a Cinéma vérité presentation, but he and Noyce overwork the concept into maudlin theatrics. Every five minutes presents an overdramatic speech or falsely rousing attempt to crowd please, with the duo zapping the material of its promising simplicity. On a personal note, I don’t think these school shooter-themed films are handling their subject matter with enough dramatic weight. Lakewood holds a closer resemblance to the dreadfully exaggerated Run Hide Fight than the meditative tonality of Elephant. Both former films reduce their meaningful slice of cultural zeitgeist into lame-duck premises cynically manufactured for Hollywood entertainment. 

Lakewood strikes competent marks from a visual and performance standpoint, but the film’s insincere approach to vital subject matter left me with a sour taste in my mouth. 

The Guilty – Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The Guilty Synopsis: A troubled police detective demoted to 911 operator duty (Jake Gyllenhaal) scrambles to save a distressed caller during a harrowing day of revelations — and reckonings.

Based on the 2018 international Sundance breakout, The Guilty finds star Jake Gyllenhaal and director Antonie Fuqua attempting to recraft the narrative into America’s challenging times. While I haven’t seen the film it’s based on – this glossy and dramatically over-pronounced effort left me wishing I checked the original out instead. 

Viewing this film in succession with Lakewood left me with lingering deja vu, as both possess similar strengths and weaknesses. Jake Gyllenhaal keeps the combustible narrative semi afloat through his sheer gravitas alone, throwing himself into the determined yet damaged character with sincerity. The Guilty works marginally better than Lakewood as an engrossing piece of entertainment, whisking audiences along a hectic 911 call full of dramatic twists and turns. 

However, The Guilty lacks dramatic potency within its chaotic narrative. Fuqua and screenwriter Nic Pizzolato capably move the nonstop narrative thread along, but the breakneck pace allows little time to flesh out the straightforward characters. The film’s thematic ambitions are equally underbaked, including a third act reveal that tries – and fails desperately at addressing the ongoing circumstances of police work. 

The Guilty’s weightless thrills never atone for the film’s glaring lack of purpose. I can see where Fuqua and company tried to make this story prominent for American audiences, but their efforts lack the required nuance to truly deliver. 

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Matt is an American who has grown up for passion for film and its empathetic powers to tell unique stories (especially in the science fiction sphere). Some of his favorites include Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Goodfellas, Frances Ha and Moonlight.


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