TIFF Riffs... The Best from the Toronto International Film Festival, Part One

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 16, 2021

A still from "Benediction"
A still from "Benediction"  

The 46th Toronto International Film Festival is underway.

Usually a star-studded, hot-ticket event, this year things are once again a bit more subdued because of the Delta variant as well as international travel restrictions. The Fest itself is offering in-theater as well as virtual screenings.

For press who cannot travel to Canada, we have been given virtual access to certain films. Alas, some of the buzziest titles, such as Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast"(Focus Features), Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" (Netflix), Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" (Warner Brothers), Pablo Larrain's "Spencer" (Neon), and Stephen Chbosky's "Dear Evan Hansen" (Universal) were not made available to press outside Canada, which begs an important question about studios not allowing press the option to watch films digitally during these scary and uncertain times. It does seem rather uncaring and unconscionable. I'll leave it at that. For now.

Here is a list of the Best at TIFF so far. (I will have more soon.)

"Bergman Island"

Mia Hansen-Løve's deeply affecting "Bergman Island" kept surprising in the most exhilarating ways. Perhaps it's because I'm an Ingmar Bergman fan or just a lover of films that still have the power to stir and provoke and awaken sensations I forgot I had. Every frame is a wonder. Ostensibly, the film is about two married filmmakers, perfectly portrayed by Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth, who journey to Fårö, the Swedish island where the writer-director extraordinaire created many of his iconic films. (These include "Scenes from a Marriage," the film "that made millions of people divorce" and has been recently re-invented as a HBO Max miniseries.) The island acts as an inspirational retreat, but the film itself turns into an exploration of much more as the lines between art and life begin to blur.

Bergman was a brilliant artist, but he could be a cruel person. Should that matter? The film asks many questions, never trivializing by forcing pat answers. It is ultimately a valentine to filmmaking itself — a profound one.

Two gay-themed films also happen to be among the most impressive.


The great Terence Davies has created yet another exquisite cinematic poem with "Benediction." After his biopic of Emily Dickinson ("A Quiet Passion") he's taken on the 20th century English poet Siegfried Sassoon and layered the film with the perpetual trauma the man felt after surviving the First World War. The film is also an exploration of sexual and spiritual identity, as well as a depiction of the desire between men at a time when acting on such feelings was criminal. Jack Lowden inhabits the younger Sassoon smashingly, while Peter Capaldi is riveting as the older, crustier poet. Jeremy Irvine explores his flamboyant side out as actor/singer/divo Ivor Novello, one of Sassoon's lovers. The cast is terrific.


Brettan Hannam's glorious first feature, "Wildhood," catapults him into the pantheon of filmmakers to watch. It's rare that a Native American, LGBTQ-themed film is made, let alone one that tells a transfixing, transformative story. The movie centers on Link (impressive newcomer Phillip Lewitski), who is half Two-Spirit Mi'kmaw on his mother's side. After one too many beatings by his abusive father and the discovery that his mother is alive, Link sets fire to his father's truck and flees with his half-brother to find her. Along the journey he encounters a fellow Mi'kmaw, Pasmay (an excellent Joshua Odjick). There is an immediate, unspoken attraction between the two. Along the way they meet up with Michael Greyeyes in a brief but potent role.

"Wildhood" is about spiritual and sexual awakening, but it is also about freeing yourself from the bondage of the past and being able to move forward. The film is about connection and harmony with the land and with oneself. It's about understanding and looking back to move forward. And it's about time!

"Ahed's Knee"

"Synonyms" was one of my favorite recent films, so I was awaiting writer-director Nadav Lapid's followup with great anticipation — and he did not disappoint. "Ahed's Knee" follows a lauded filmmaker (Avshalom Pollak) on a break from making a film about a 16-year-old Palestinian girl who had the audacity to hit an Israeli soldier (where the title comes from). He is on his way to a small desert village for a screening of his latest film when he is asked to sign a document by a local Ministry of Culture rep (Nur Fibak) declaring he will only speak about certain government-approved topics at the Q&A. The growing censorial, hypocritical, and cancel-culture climate does not sit well with him, and he lets it all out in one of the most extraordinarily primal and powerful scenes I have seen in a very long time, a moment brimming with truths and warnings. But then, just as we have made up our minds about right and wrong, Lapid has the audacity to turn the tables on the viewer and toss us into doubt. In Hebrew with English subtitles.


After sitting through Julia Ducournau's provocative, what-if-Lars-von-Trier-woke-up-female cinematic concoction "Titane," I wondered what would have happened had it first been pitched to a U.S. studio. It would go something like this: "So, there's this ladyboy serial killer who has a titanium plate in her head because she pissed her father off when she was small, and now, grown up, she decides to fuck a car and gets pregnant. But has to hide out because, well, she's a serial killer, so one day she notices that she looks a lot like this boy who disappeared a decade ago, so she cuts off her hair and breaks her nose and the father of the missing boy accepts her as the boy, and —" "Thank you. Next!"

Actually, Ducournau would not have gotten that far, but let's be thankful her truly brave and hypnotic work was realized.

"Titane" challenges notions of gender and identity, and will definitely elicit a reaction from you. Agathe Rouselle is unforgettable as the lead. In French with English subtitles.

"Montana Story"

Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson portray estranged siblings in a modern-day psychological western "Montana Story," written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Cal (Teague), lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but returns to his family ranch in Montana to be with his dying dad and help manage and sell off what's left of the property. His sister, Erin (Richardson), whom he hasn't seen or spoken to in seven years, shows up, and the two must finally come to terms with the betrayal at the center of why she left.

"Montana Story" is a beautiful film on every level, and the two leads are captivating. Both Teague and Richardson should be in the awards conversation. It's fascinating to watch them reduced to teenagers when they're in each other's company. I was intrigued by the deliberate caginess of how Cal's sexual orientation was handled. It would have added another layer if the filmmakers had committed to his being gay and living in Wyoming, the state where Mathew Shepard saw his end.


Three of Italy's most gifted and socially-conscious directors, Pietro Marcello ("Martin Eden"), Francesco Munzi ("Black Souls") and Alice Rohrwacher ("Happy as Lazzaro") took to the Italian countryside to ask the nation's youth questions about the future. The answers proved quite startling and rather promising from Gen Z, touching on concerns about issues ranging from family to politics to homophobia to racism to seeing social networks as a plague. Oh, and every other male wants to be a football (that is, soccer) player! During the making of the doc COVID struck, and the future seemed less bright. "Futura" is quite moving, and strangely hopeful. In Italian with English subtitles (that could use more scrutiny).

"The Electrical Life of Louis Wain"

Benedict Cumberbatch gets to fly his fabulous freak flag high in the wildly eccentric biopic "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain." The actor, who excels in roles that are offbeat and daring, portrays the real-life titular Victorian-era artist who is largely responsible for the popularity of cats as pets (apparently, despite being popular with the ancient Egyptians, they had long fallen out of favor). Director/co-screenwriter Will Sharpe has made a film in tune with his frenzied and peculiar subject, one that dazzles and delights. Wain's life was filled with joys and many sorrows. He had one great love (Claire Foy, heartbreakingly good) and too many nagging sisters. Oh, and a great gift for drawing, especially cats. Wain loved breaking rules, and didn't care much for what people thought of him. One would hope the Wains of our future will be treated with more respect and dignity.

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye"

Who hasn't giggled at Tammy Faye Baker? I sure have. But in a key scene in Michael Showalter's bizarre film, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," where a group are laughing behind her back, we don't laugh with them. We feel for her. That has everything to do with the empathy Jessica Chastain's complicated performance demands.

The film, based on the celebrated documentary by the same name, is a wacky genre mishmash that could have used some trimming, more political focus, and a darker sense of satire. That said, it succeeds more than not because of the bold embodiment by Chastain. Her Tammy is a misunderstood dupe and a good soul. It's a tricky turn, but in comparison with some broader impersonations Oscar has embraced recently (Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury!), Chastain manages to etch a stunner of a portrait of a woman trying to make it in a man's world (even with all that makeup). Andrew Garfield does his best, but his Jim has less dimension. And Cherry Jones works her own miracles. But this is Chastain's show, and by the time we get to Battle Hymn of the Republic she's earned her 'Hallelujah!'

"The Mad Women's Ball"

Mélanie Laurent's "The Mad Women's Ball," adapted by Laurent and Chris Deslandes, and based on the novel by Victoria Mas, is set in France in the late 19th century, when psychiatry was in its infancy and women who were too rebellious or difficult were simply tossed into clinics (that is, glorified insane asylums). Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge) is a young, independent thinker who encounters dead people. She is dubbed an hysteric and institutionalized with a host of pitiful women who might have had little wrong with them, but were put under the supervision of ambitious doctors who used them in horrible ways. Resonating quite a bit with today's world, "Mad" meanders a bit, but is a powerful film about the historically misogynistic treatment of women by men in power. In French with English subtitles.

"The Girl and the Spider"

At first, I wondered where this seemingly simple story of two young friends (one in the process of moving out of a shared apartment) was going. But soon Ramon and Silvan Zürcher's "The Girl and the Spider," had me trapped in its web (it was there; I had to) as more characters are introduced and the inter-relationships become more and more tense, complex, and potentially dangerous. The performances are uniformly wonderful, and, in the end, the filmmakers achieve something sublime. In German with English subtitles.


Olivia Munn delivers a career-best performance in "Violet," Justine Bateman's feature film debut as writer/director, a probing character study of a successful film exec navigating who she wants to be vs. who she's expected to be as she slowly stops listening to the negative voice in her head and starts making decisions that promote her own well-being. Bateman captures the crucible of anxiety, tension, desperation, indignity, dissatisfaction, longing, and rage ready to erupt in a world still dominated by the patriarchy.

"The Wheel"

"The Wheel" should not be as good as it is. It's too facile a plot and offers no real surprises, so why did it leave me with such a joyous feeling? Perhaps it was Steve Pink's intimate way of telling the story, or Trent Atkinson's intelligent screenplay, or the authentic performances from Taylor Gray, Amber Midthunder, Bethany Ann Lind, and Nelson Lee? The plot has a young couple embark on a trip to a cabin in the woods to try and save their mess of a marriage — one definitely wants to, the other seemingly doesn't give a damn. But there is much more going on beneath the surface, and the last 20 minutes make the entire sit worthwhile.

"Mothering Sunday"

Eva Husson's "Mothering Sunday," is a somber, often erotic film set between the two world wars, that centers on a young maid, Jane (a lovely Odessa Young) that works for an older wealthy couple, the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, both excellent), who lost their sons in WWI. Jane is having a secret love affair with Paul (sexy and sublime Josh O'Connor), the only survivor among his siblings and a close friend of the Nivens'. Based on the Graham Swift's novella and adapted by Alice Birch, the film might have been fleshed out a bit more, especially with such an armada of talent in the cast, which features a criminally underused, but wonderful, Glenda Jackson.

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Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute