A still from Jennifer Abbott's The Magnitude of All Things (2021)
Stories about the urgency of climate change and its destruction in various forms are a striking reminder that now is the time to act. Wildfires are raging, sea levels are rising, more species are going extinct. For the people on the frontline of devastating effects, the climate crisis is not a ‘future’ problem to kick down the road. It’s happening now. The time for action is now. The destruction of mother earth is personal destruction, and the onus is on collective action. The Magnitude of All Things, a new documentary by Jennifer Abbott, draws parallels between personal and planetary experiences of grief. The worldwide loss of livelihood woven together with the loss of someone who meant the world to somebody else. When Abbott lost her sister to cancer, her grief drove her to action. The Magnitude of All Things is a deeply personal letter to the continuous cycle of grief and coming out the other side with an open curiosity to live through each day to the fullest.
Hope can be a double edged sword. To hope for the best, enables the assumption that everything will be okay, that everything will work itself out. When all hope is lost, sometimes that is what pushes intention over the edge. When hope goes, action begins. Abbott’s documentary treads a very fine line between the different motivators. What propels her as a filmmaker, weaving into moments of reenactment to honor her sister’s spirit. Abbott also explores what propels various climate activists from around the globe, including Greta Thunberg who gives some insight into how her course of action began from attending school to leading enormous marches. Watching hope unexpectedly surround her as crowds populated with younger generations. Stories from perspectives such as Thunberg’s merge often with Abbott’s own recollections about her sister’s life and the childhood they shared. So much so that the parallels are jarring.
The shift from real-life footage and interviews to reenactments of personal history feel like multiple projects rolled in one. Though the raw emotion is touching, the reenactments play out as dramatic commercials and only emphasize an already strong lack of subject focus. What ties all the perspectives together is interesting…the magnitude of all things, the collective responsibility of human beings to protect this planet. Firsthand testimony shows reflections of personal, ecological, cultural loss. The threat of resources destroyed before your eyes, the uncertainty of not knowing the future are such emotionally charged threats. There’s a moving nostalgia to some of the testimony, like being wistful about not getting to experience a way of life that was more naturally resourceful from an environmental state.
The Magnitude of All Things doesn’t quite come together in the way that it has the potential to, but Abbott takes an interesting route in bridging an empathetic perspective of personal loss with that of planetary grief. The documentary is an urgent reminder of the many people protecting the rights of nature, which is not strictly environmental. It’s a protection of self, family, forests, ecological systems, ultimately the world around us. With a resounding message that lays a path from grief to action, The Magnitude of All Things listens to the voices of a world being lost before our eyes.
The Magnitude of All Things screened as part of the 2021 Devour! Fest program. The 11th edition of Devour! The Food Film Fest runs from October 18-24, 2021. Visit devourfest.com for tickets and a full program lineup.
A still from Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell's Kiss The Ground (2021)
What if there was an alternative path to solve the climate crisis? A simple solution for the here and now, as actor Woody Harrelson narrates, is right under our feet. It’s in the earth around us and the ground beneath us. Somewhere deep in the roots of co-directors Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell’s documentary Kiss The Ground is an informative intervention about protecting the world’s soil. How soil is a hopeful solution to stabilizing climate, replenish lost ecosystems, and create abundant food supplies. For a while, the focus seems concentrated on various leaders in agriculture. Notably as they present conservation practices to American farms in the hopes of planting a regenerative seed. Inexplicably along the way, the Tickells shift to a sea of eco-conscious celebrities who seem well-meaning, but their presence brings no substance to the down-to-earth message at the core of this climate documentary. Kiss The Ground takes a fact-based approach on practices that gets distracted by conflicting ideas on how best to present them.
Kiss The Ground plants seeds of information on healthy soil and the global issue of massive erosion. Including the origins of chemical toxins and several interviews with modern-day leaders in agriculture, regeneration farming emerges as a critical piece of the climate puzzle. The focus on this piece remains abundantly clear, but what’s missing from the puzzle is the Indigenous origins of regenerative agriculture approaches for several hundred years. Indigenous Americans protected and preserved land through practices that have since advanced sustainable agriculture. Such as permaculture, working with the earth and ground to generate healthy soil. A plethora of star-studded appearances explaining the innovativeness of composting and toasting a return to Eden feels out of touch with the Indigenous history of regenerative agriculture.
Soothing as Woody Harrelson’s narration is, one of the key factors for why Kiss The Ground feels disjointed is the unexpected switch to focus on celebrity endorsements. Listing all the names would waste as much time as the documentary does by focusing on their well-intentioned but distracting perspectives. It’s a puzzling choice given the Tickells’ strength rests on following the likes of conservation agronomists and science teams from different parts of the world. While helpful to gather up various sides to the climate crisis response, from farmers and regenerative ranchers to ministry of agriculture leaders, it’s uncertain where a hopeful Jason Mraz song fits in. Not that using one’s platform to spread awareness should necessarily be frowned upon, but there’s a disconnect in using the perspectives of wealthy white people to explain and show the benefits of a practice that’s been done by Indigenous Americans for thousands of years.
While faulty in its focus, Kiss The Ground sheds light on how historically, chemical toxins and sprays date back to Germany rebranding chemicals as pesticides for American farms. What emerged was the vicious cycle of industrial agriculture, working against the earth and stripping soil of its nutrients. To break the cycle, the documentary cites regenerative farming to draw down carbon and improve plant growth. As well, the Tickells look to how a city such as San Francisco leads the way in terms of collecting food scraps, turning it into compost, and getting it to farms. There’s a lot of focus on educating farmers and planting the seed of protecting soil’s health in the name of regenerative agriculture. While distracting in its scope, Kiss The Ground does excel at establishing a clear narrative and providing a pathway for people of today to protect future generations. As conveyed in a hopeful concluding montage of the younger generation prepared to appreciate the earth around us and fight for a healthy planet.
Messages around togetherness of meals and urgency to protect the Earth's nutrients among festival highlights
A still from Jennifer Abbott’s The Magnitude of All Things (2021)
Devour! The Food Film Fest is back for another year! Combining cinematic excellence with interactive cooking workshops, Devour Fest is a transformative food and film experience. The annual 6-day festival returns with a hybrid format of in-person attendance at its base in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, along with virtual attendance for patrons across Canada. Over the 6 days, there will be 47 events including film screenings, special programs, and cooking workshops. Devour! is Canada’s largest food & film festival, and the biggest of its kind globally. In 2019, Devour! welcomed a record 14,463 food and film lovers to Wolfville. As a response to unprecedented times, the festival’s theme of Global Indigenous Cinema & Cuisine will reach audiences as far into the world as possible. A small segment of programming is geo-blocked to Nova Scotia and Canada.
Among the festival highlights are women-led documentaries and short films that convey resonating messages around the togetherness of meals, the accessibility to healthy eating, and the urgency to protect the earth’s nutrients. Lina Li's Have You Eaten? exudes the warmth and comfort of a family uniting during the pandemic. Living in downtown Toronto to attend school, Lina Li returns to her home in Thornhill and to her mother's cooking. In this personal five-minute short film, Lina and her mother share intimate conversations about immigration to Canada, barriers to communicating, embracing cultural dishes, and the power of mother-daughter love. 'Have You Eaten?' is a lovely reflection of how sharing meals, and the safety of home, brings a family together.
Linda Mai Green's Chishkale: The Blessing of the Acorn centers on Bernadette Smith, from the Manchester band of Pomo Indians. She weaves the story of her Tan Oak conservation efforts in Northern California into a contemporary Indigenous dance piece created to honor the sacred traditional food of California Natives. The Acorn Dance is performed on Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in Huichin on Ohlone Territory (Albany, CA). This five-minute short film is a personal slice of life about honoring ancestors, the responsibility of continuing tradition, and feeding the Earth through cultural practices.
From Canada, Rebecca Thomassie’s short film Names for Snow follows Thomassie, an Inuk woman, around Kangirsuk as she learns the 52 Inuktitut words for snow. From the USA, co-directors Tracy Nguyen-Chung and Ciara Lacy bring their short film Connection centering on fly fishing. On a trip to Washington to cast for steelhead, lifelong angler Autumn Harry unpacks what it means to overcome her own image of fly fishers, and uses the sport to fight for conservation.
A still from Linda Mai Green's Chishkale: The Blessing of the Acorn (2021)
On the documentary feature side, also accessible to viewers across Canada during the festival, cover different sides to the frontline of climate change. Co-Directors Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Joshua Tickell explain why regenerating the world’s soils is a hopeful solution to stabilizing climate, replenish lost ecosystems, and create abundant food supplies. Their documentary Kiss The Ground, narrated and featuring Woody Harrelson, plants seeds of information on healthy soil and the global issue of massive erosion. Soothing as Harrelson's narration is, the plethora of star-studded appearances following his lead feel distasteful and distracting from the Indigeous origins of regenerative agriculture approaches. Jennifer Abbott’s new documentary, The Magnitude of All Things, merges stories from the frontlines of climate change with recollections of the loss of her sister, drawing intimate parallels between personal and planetary grief. Nations featured are Nunatsiavut, Kichwa, Pachamama, Sápara Nation, and Kichwa First People of Santa Ana.
“Devour! The Food Film Fest is an important vehicle for advancing awareness of Indigenous culture by celebrating First Nation communities, filmmaking, and food,” says Chief Sidney Peters of the Glooscap First Nation. “Glooscap First Nation has successfully collaborated with the festival in years past to celebrate Mi’kmaq culture and bring this experience to visitors from around the world. I’m looking forward to our continued partnership as we celebrate Global Indigenous Cinema and Cuisine at Devour! 2021 and for years to come.”
The 11th edition of Devour! The Food Film Fest runs from October 18-24, 2021.
Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd in Mass (2021)
Fran Kranz’s searing directorial debut Mass explores the aftermath of a school shooting from the different perspectives of two couples in mourning. A conversation piece through and through, Mass is carried by four powerful performances of heart shattering magnitude. Set almost entirely in one room, the dialogue takes center stage with a fly-on-the-wall level of intimacy. Jay and Gail (played by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) agree to meet with Richard and Linda (played by Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) to gain a semblance of closure after a tragedy involving the sons of both sets of parents. Everyone wants to heal. Everyone wants to move forward with a cathartic release. Is this meeting how to go about it? The families’ stories play out in the vein of a stage production, with each actor ready to partake in the collaborative exercise. While the stagy directions interrupt the flow of conversation at times, the magnificently openhearted ensemble cast make Mass a resonating punch in the gut. It’s a moving story about grief, forgiveness, and the unflinching emotional journey towards acceptance.
The film opens with the interior of a church, a calm before the storm as a back room is being set up for what’s bound to be an emotional conversation. Judy (a totally endearing Breeda Wool) arranges for a table with some chairs in the center; coffee and snacks tucked away at another table in the corner. She constantly asks if this setup is ok, if they’ll need anything else. Kendra (Michelle N. Carter), a mediator for one of the families, rearranges the chairs so that two are on either side of the table. She places a tissue box in the center. There’s an air of uncertainty hanging over the room. The details in Mass say so much. The lived-in buildup to the main event of this film creates a lot of tension and nervous anticipation for four-way dialogue. There’s an awkwardness and hesitance when both couples walk into the room. While Mass is of course a dialogue-heavy piece, so much is said in what the characters are suppressing. It’s understandable for them to awkwardly step around the traumatic incident that has brought them together in the first place. Each of their grief manifests in different ways. How do they begin addressing the grief they have experienced for years?
The conversation takes shape in a way unbeknownst to everyone in the room. All they know is what happened, and how they feel about it. The characters are developed through the pieces of their lives that they choose to share with one another. Kranz trusts the actors entirely to carry a conversation with small details, silences and glances. Through their performances, the aftermath of the shooting are revealed. Public statements (and lack thereof), lawsuits, and letters fall under emotional scrutiny. One of the strongest features of this film is that it unfolds from a place where life has come to a halt. Mass is about four people in a room, each bringing their own perspective to the table which moves the conversation in often erratic ways. At its worst, the dialogue feels a little too staged and orchestrated. But ultimately the choreography of words falls in line with how each character walks into that room with some impulse to say their piece. Even if it may not come out the way they envision.
Jason Isaacs in Mass (2021)
Martha Plimpton and Ann Dowd in Mass (2021)
Jay and Gail walk in full of blame in their hearts. Ready to assign Richard and Linda with the burden of guilt. For years since the shooting, Jay and Gail have understandably vilified this other couple to the point of not considering them as capable of human emotion. Richard and Linda walk in with fear and uncertainty scattered in their eyes. It’s a compelling contrast to Jay and Gail who appear to have a more purposeful approach, wanting answers that Richard and Linda don’t have. All four performances excel at capturing the unspoken tension and differing manifestations of heartache. Jason Isaacs delivers far and away his best performance to date. A seething fissure of emotions that stuns when reaching the surface. Being less familiar with Martha Plimpton’s work, her fantastic performance is a great reminder of her talent. You can tell that when Gail walks into the room, she’s doing so with purpose in her eyes. But over the course of the conversation she loses grip on how she’s going to achieve any semblance of a satisfying outcome. It’s heartbreaking to watch. Reed Birney has the least showy role of the quartet, which makes his work even more impressive as his impact is quietly devastating. Then there’s the great Ann Dowd. A magnetic force of nature who somehow outdoes herself as Linda, revealing new depths of her talent especially when in one-on-one correspondence with Gail.
Fran Kranz’s direction lives in the moment and stays with the characters. There are no flashbacks to the past, a smart move on Kranz’s part. Once the conversation begins, the only break from the room is an occasional image of a mountain landscape; front and center, a ribbon tied to a fence is drifting in the wind. It appears and reappears in what feels like random moments. In retrospect, perhaps a ribbon of awareness, a symbol of love and support without uttering a word. Often with grief it is hard to find the words to explain its all-consuming nature. Mass excels at showing people from opposite sides of a tragedy come together for one moment in time when healing and forgiveness feel possible. There is no telling how their future correspondences will be, and while each individual has their own process, the power of seeing them hold onto one another’s words in the remnants of grief is so deeply moving. Driven by four tremendous performances, Mass is an urgent writing-directing debut sparking resonating conversation and empathy.
Mass releases theatrically across Canada on October 15th.
Penn Badgley and Victoria Pedretti in You: Season 3 (2021) courtesy of Netflix
Based on Caroline Kepnes’ best-selling novel of the same name, the premise of Netflix thriller series You is the foundation for how obsessive killer Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) operates, all in the name of true romance. The past two seasons have seen his pattern play out, with enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. He becomes transfixed with a woman, goes down a rabbit hole to find out everything about her, and is determined to eliminate anyone standing in his way of finding love. Joe’s narration puts the story inside his head, charting his emotions and thought process for why he feels like he’s right. The series starts to find its stride in season two, avoiding repetitiveness by introducing a fresh start in Los Angeles with Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). Love’s complicated character proves to be a game-changer, equally psychotic as she turns the tables on Joe and leaves room for more. The writing team of You season 3 take advantage of an opportunity to explore Love’s murderous spree, showing how this affects her and Joe’s marriage and joint parenthood in a suburban setting. The couple learns surprising layers about each other, while also relying on patterns they’ve come to know from being together. Has Joe really met his true match, or is his only chance at a fresh start one without love? Couple’s therapy can only do so much…Behind the white picket fences of small-town living is You’s most thrilling season yet.
The biggest part of why You season 3 feels more fully realized than its predecessors is bringing the character of Love Quinn fully on board. Most of the unpredictability derives from her trajectory and the way she utilizes her surroundings, whereas Joe’s character has greater tendency to tread familiar/derivative territory. The two of them together, now married and raising their baby Henry in Northern California, raise the stakes under the roof of a new setting. The season makes a great decision in moving away from sprawling places like New York City and Los Angeles. The Quinn-Goldberg residence lies in the Northern California enclave of Madre Linda, a small suburban outskirt where a slowed-down lifestyle affords more time for the neighbors to know everyone’s business. There are only so many places to find solitude, a sentiment that Joe and Love’s next-door-neighbor Natalie (Michaela McManus) knows all too well. Getting to know her holds a mirror to Joe’s perpetual feeling of the grass being greener on the other side. The picture-perfect Quinn-Goldberg marriage is a suburban purgatory, and Joe’s loyalty to his own heart above all complicates their future.
Penn Badgley and Victoria Pedretti in You: Season 3 (2021) courtesy of Netflix
Michaela McManus in You: Season 3 (2021) courtesy of Netflix
Built on a foundation of secrets and lies, season 3 excels at lifting the facade of an idealized life. Having a perfect marriage and family are romanticized over everything else, to the detriment of what’s real. The suburban setting is the perfect playground for this story, where so much rides on keeping up appearances and ultimately lying to yourself in order to do so. Watching Joe and Love attempt a cookie cutter lifestyle is entertaining and disturbing in equal measure, especially with the purity of baby Henry in the background. The facade of Joe and Love’s marriage is also lifted; moving to a setting that sounds mundane and typical only intensifies their attempts to fit in and gain acceptance. Madre Linda is a place where any deviation from social acceptance would be cause for ruin, making everyone’s hidden truths valuable weapons for self-destruction. Joe and Love may know plenty of each other’s dark murderous secrets, but not everything. The more Joe wants to reign himself in for the sake of his son, the more unpredictable Love becomes.
Reprising their roles, Penn Badgley and Victoria Pedretti give their most impressive performances of the series as Joe and Love. Giving them more layers to work with, the new season draws parallels between the two characters and gives insight into why they are able to keep up with each other. Both are unraveling in self-sabotage, unhappiness, and issues with their parents. With flashbacks to Joe’s troubled childhood, and present-day scenes with Love’s mother Dottie (Saffron Burrows), family scars dictate much of the couple’s decision-making with Henry. Season 3 puts Joe and Love in some new lights, giving Badgley and especially Pedretti room to flex a wider range of muscles. Love’s rollercoaster character takes far more of a responsibility this season, which makes each episode more and more impulsive. Joe’s character maintains a steady soundboard of insightful narration, new obsessions, and themes of toxic masculinity.
Tati Gabrielle in You: Season 3 (2021) courtesy of Netflix
Shalita Grant and Travis Van Winkle in You: Season 3 (2021) courtesy of Netflix
The surrounding neighborhood of bloggers, entrepreneurs, and social media influencers is catnip for Joe’s taunting narration. You season 3 introduces a mostly new cast of supporting characters who complicate the leads’ decisions, cloud their judgement, and aren’t as unassuming as one would think. Mostly residents of Madre Linda, they have their own secrets and lies that can throw a wrench in even the most carefully planned situations. Among the standouts are Tati Gabrielle as Marienne and Dylan Arnold as Theo, each of whom have a bigger part to play in flipping the script as the season unravels. The season also introduces two of the most entertaining characters yet, Sherry and Cary Conrad. The Conrads, played by Shalita Grant and Travis Van Winkle, are the perfect playful anecdote to the Quinn-Goldbergs. Their performances play up the ridiculousness of social media obsession but neither of them, Grant especially, allow for their characters to become caricatures which makes their trajectory a lot more gratifying.
You season 3 pulls a dangerously addictive front row seat to crumbling relationships in a hellish cookie cutter suburbia. Old habits die hard, and this new chapter does its best to maintain surprising twists that push the narrative in new directions. Building on the psychological edges and satirical commentary of the first two seasons, there’s more to the revelations than throwing in bombshells for the sake of it. Season three excels in conveying dual roles between Love and Joe. Both manipulative in their own right, the game becomes who is playing who at any given moment. The Quinn-Goldberg duo, along with memorable supporting characters aiming to get one step ahead of them, have enough tricks up their sleeve to maintain binge-worthy chills and thrills.
You season 3 releases exclusively on Netflix October 15th.
Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty (2021)
Following the 2015 release of Southpaw, Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal reunite for an American retelling of The Guilty, originally a Denmark film directed by Gustav Möller. Taking place over the course of a single morning, demoted police officer Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) answers calls at a 911 dispatch desk. A wildfire rages over Los Angeles as he settles into a repetitive shift. Then one call comes in from a woman in grave danger using cryptic messages. The chaotic events that transpire send Joe into a downward spiral, as he throws himself at this case and discovers nothing is as it seems. Communication is his only way out. Fuqua expertly keeps the camera close on Baylor, which heightens the tension and maintains frenetically high stakes in a contained setting. The alarming reports, the missed calls, the failed signals, all help build to thrilling sequences. Decades into his career, Fuqua continues to show how well he can craft a lean and absorbing thriller. With swift direction and a fantastic cast, The Guilty makes the most of a 90-minute runtime.
Having not seen the original film, The Guilty has plenty of surprises in store. Thanks to a contained setting, the reveals are in real-time which gives the opportunity to experience these moments along with the central character, as he frantically tries to determine next steps to take when time is of the essence. In spending this early morning with Joe Baylor, there are a lot of unpleasantries. He can be demeaning, he flies off the handle, he is snappish with his time. He is also experiencing anxiety ahead of his disciplinary court hearing. Allusions to misconduct surface in bits and pieces, gathered from Baylor’s various phone conversations with some of the people in his life. Gyllenhaal is the glue conveying a whirlwind of emotions, as we see Baylor’s head spin between personal and professional failings.
In the midst of this tornado is a 911 call from a kidnapped woman named Emily (Riley Keough). Sounding as though she’s speaking to her child, Emily cryptically reports her own abduction and Baylor catches on without missing a beat. With a ticking clock and limited information, Baylor puts everything into solving this case. From the moment she calls in, it’s as if his outside world stops and his other problems melt away. Nothing else matters except guaranteeing Emily’s safety. This dynamic between the two characters is what keeps The Guilty running. The film is an acting showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal, a consistently great actor who delivers yet another compelling performance. His exceptional work brings a pulsating energy to the story. Even more impressive is the performance by Riley Keough, stealing scenes from over the phone. Her voice work is astounding; the fear in her tone is unmistakable, and she takes the audience on an unexpected journey with an emotionally resonating undercurrent. Long after the film is over, it is her character who lingers in memory. Keough does such a great job creating a visual with her voice, imploring the power of imagination for what Emily is going through. Much of the film’s success is in the casting not just of Gyllenhaal, but the entire supporting cast. All the voice work is strong across the board, including an emotional Christiana Montoya as Emily’s daughter Abby and a great Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the CHP dispatcher Baylor often calls to help locate Emily.
The momentum of The Guilty ebbs and flows at times; but at its peak moments, which usually involve the calls shared between Baylor and Emily, it’s easy to feel glued to the screen. By staying up close and personal with Baylor, conveying his anxiety and subtly introducing people in his life (his daughter; his estranged wife), the film establishes a strong connection to him. The Guilty also delves into accountability; it’s unclear exactly why but Baylor is a guilty character, and the weight of his actions lay heavy on him throughout the film. With an important hearing coming up the following morning, he has the opportunity to hold himself accountable. For much of the film, Baylor channels this energy into Emily’s case. As though if he could make things right for her and bring her home safely, this would overshadow his previous wrongdoings. The film speaks to the incompetence of policing as well, as shown in the contrast of Baylor’s character. He is quick to follow clues and catch on to mixed signals, while allusions to his past show he’s taken part in corruption and misconduct.
The Guilty gets repetitive at times; the containment of one setting reaches tedious moments. There is also a missed opportunity not delving deeper into the subject of mental health. But Gyllenhaal’s engaging performance and the impressive supporting voice work command the screen. The cast help create a riveting environment where characters are relying on one another to figure out what decisions to make next in real-time. Fuqua’s direction keeps the stakes high and creates an energetic atmosphere with more weight than a by-the-numbers thriller.
A still from Summertime (2021)
Infusing passionate heart and soul into every frame, director Carlos López Estrada masters the art of intersecting storylines in his lyrical film Summertime. Following his directorial debut Blindspotting, Estrada sets Summertime in Los Angeles and gives a voice to dozens of young Angelinos as their lives cross paths over the course of a single day. Through spoken word poetry, these young poets are the writers and stars of their own individual segments. They each have the space to move candidly and experiment in prose. An abundance of personalities share different expressions of love, fear, home, family, friendship, dreams, frustrations, powerlessness, capitalism, heartache. What do all of these words mean to them? Each segment demands attention, as the poets’ souls are laid bare. Estrada’s direction is so exuberant in celebrating community, showing the strengths of truthful expression, and seeks creativity in everyday moments. Summertime finds beautiful rhythm in the authenticity of uniquely talented performers.
With the blessing of a fluent narrative, the poets float in and out of each other’s stories. Summertime propels forward in a breeze. Estrada captures that feeling of life passing you by, of suddenly waking up one day and wondering where all the time has gone. As well, the film contrasts life’s chaotic haste with moments of creative pause. Each musical segment is a powerful rumination, pouring from the hearts of those performing them. While naturally some performers are stronger than others, it’s incredibly fulfilling to watch a community of talent brought together and sharing in their stories. Summertime feels like such an ode to the human spirit. Pulsating with energy at every turn while finding resonating, grounded moments to shine a light on harsh realities. Estrada lets this community and their surroundings guide the flow with a spring in their steps.
The intersecting storylines of Summertime give the film a wonderful ebb and flow, to the point where it feels like one big stream of consciousness with multiple little threads. Each individual segment is a strong creative burst of personality. Some shine stronger; the standout performer here goes to Marquesha Babers, whose incredible piece confronting her ex is a force of nature. A towering achievement where time stops, and this intimate moment Babers shares becomes all-absorbing. Another great standout is Gordon Ip’s piece as a fast-food worker fed up with a toxic environment and the entitlement of customers. His segment unites some of the poets seen throughout the film, and propels Summertime to a wonderful moonlit ending full of emotional (and literal) fireworks.
While there are dips in quality from one segment to the next, all the spoken word performances feel connected on the same wavelength and basking in the warmth that creative expression brings to the soul. Art brings people together. Music brings people together. The form of expression holds a mirror through which many can see themselves in, feeling seen and heard. The constant shifting from one segment to another in Summertime gets messy often, but speaks to the ups and downs of creating. By the end of the film, watching all the poets listen to the final piece together hits hard. The sense of unity and understanding in this moment, a piece about dreams and reclaiming power over time, has a resounding emotional core. The film takes control of time by giving each performer the opportunity to “fly like the ground is on fire.” Time does not fly. The poets do, and their varied forms of expression carry them to creative heights in Carlos López Estrada’s melodic work of art.
Watch Summertime on Apple TV/iTunes when it releases digitally October 5 in Canada.
As In Heaven (dir. Tea Lindeburg)
The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival welcomed back some familiar faces and long-awaited returns to their hybrid of in-person and digital screenings. TIFF Tribute Actor Award recipients Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye; The Forgiven) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog; The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) each had two films premiere at the festival. Speaking of The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s first feature film in over a decade (since Bright Star in 2009) premiered to enthusiastic praise. As did some of the major studio films including WB’s Dune (Denis Villeneuve) and, TIFF People’s Choice Award winner, Focus Features’ Belfast (Kenneth Branagh). With additional titles such as Focus’ Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright) and NEON’s Spencer (Pablo Larraín), the festival boasted some of the most anticipated new releases.
As is the case every festival season, there are plenty more titles that tend to fly under the radar. I saw that many of this year’s hidden gems were in debut features, directed by and starring women. Promising talent, emerging vivid voices with a lot to say, and clear visions create a sense of disbelief that these incoming titles are the filmmakers’ first films. One of TIFF’s initiatives is the Share Her Journey campaign, supporting women’s paths to succeed as storytellers who help shape our cultural landscape (their words). While much progress still needs to be made, their words are ringing more true year by year. Of this year’s lineup, 46% of titles were directed, co-directed, or created by women. 19 of those titles were debut features directed by women.
Films such as Hong Sung-eun’s Aloners and Laura Samani’s Small Body explore the weight of isolation and solitary journeys. Also wandering in journeys of their own are Agustina San Martin’s To Kill the Beast and Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne, which feel their way around which direction to take. A number of films feature protagonists following in the footsteps of women who have come before. Tea Lindeburg’s As In Heaven and Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother, respectively set several decades apart, tackle the horrors women face about their health and autonomy. Part of what makes horror films (or ones that have elements of the genre) so appealing is how fear is elicited in different ways. Camille Griffin’s Silent Night raises an existentialist toast to the human spirit with dark comedy. Horror is also drawn from perceptive fears, and from real-life tragedies that reach through time and continue to haunt all those affected. Stanley Nelson’s documentary Attica, co-directed by Traci A. Curry in her first credited feature, gives harrowing insight to the rebellion of Black men and the horrific events that unraveled at the prison over the course of 5 days. Danis Goulet’s dystopian Night Raiders incorporates sci-fi and historical policies to show the harm inflicted on Indigenous people in Canada.
Watching these stories continues to amplify the voices of so many communities in front of and behind the camera. Stories of family and intimacy, ones of sticking together and growing apart, ones that carry universality by being so specific. Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s Canadian slice of life Scarborough, the first runner-up for the TIFF21 People’s Choice, follows three children in a low-income neighborhood who cross paths and become fast friends. It’s a story from which yearning for togetherness and understanding beams. Portrayals of day-to-day life gives a window to many of the protagonists in these debut features. Haya Waseem’s Quickening, Rebecca Huntt’s Beba, and Luàna Bajrami’s The Hill Where Lionesses Roar convey a fire within women drawing from personal experiences. Environment and setting play a heavy part in carrying the waves of emotions and circumstances. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s Murina contrasts a beautiful oceanfront home with deep trouble in paradise. So too does Agnieszka Woszczynska’s Silent Land, a story that exposes the worn-out threads of a couple’s idyllic-looking foundation whilst on vacation. For many, there is no such thing as a place to run away from it all. For the family in Mounia Akl’s Costa Brava, Lebanon, who live isolated in the mountains to escape terrible pollution, the climate crisis catches up to their backyard.
While some ranging in quality and not always sticking the landing, these films have something to say, from a promising voice behind the camera. With TIFF pushing in a promising direction (and hopefully more to come), it would be interesting to see how many of these first-time feature directors become familiar faces during festival seasons years from now. Considering some of the spellbinding debuts that premiered at TIFF21, I look forward to the follow-ups.
Aloners (dir. Hong Sung-eun)
A solitary woman re-evaluates her isolated existence after her neighbour dies alone in his apartment, in Hong Sung-eun’s subtle debut feature.
Small Body (dir. Laura Samani)
Set in northeastern Italy in 1900, Laura Samani’s feature debut follows a grieving mother on a mythopoetic journey to give her stillborn child a name.
To Kill The Beast (dir. Agustina San Martin)
Agustina San Martín’s feature directorial debut is a bold piece of tropical gothic that puts young female desire at the centre of its loose narrative.
Ste. Anne (dir. Rhayne Vermette)
This stirring debut feature by Manitoban filmmaker and artist Rhayne Vermette is a formally alluring examination of home by way of places and people.
As In Heaven (dir. Tea Lindeburg)
Religious dogma and superstition threaten the dreams of a young 19th-century woman, in Tea Lindeburg’s period film that feels eerily contemporary.
You Are Not My Mother (Kate Dolan)
An eerie Irish folk horror wherein a teenage girl’s mother goes missing only to return with an increasingly uncanny change in personality.
Silent Night (dir. Camille Griffin)
Keira Knightley stars in Camille Griffin’s feature directorial debut, about a family’s eventful Christmas dinner in the country.
Night Raiders (dir. Danis Goulet)
Danis Goulet’s singular thriller draws on Canada’s ugly colonial legacy for a propulsive piece of genre cinema set in a dystopian postwar future.
Scarborough (dir. Shasta Nakhai & Rich Williamson)
Three kids in a low-income neighbourhood find friendship and community in an unlikely place, in this adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s award-winning book.
Attica (dir. Traci A. Curry & Stanley Nelson)
Stanley Nelson examines the largest prison uprising in US history, conducting dozens of new interviews with inmates, journalists, and other witnesses.
Beba (dir. Rebecca Huntt)
A raw, poetic self-portrait in which young, NYC-born Afro-Latina Rebeca “Beba” Huntt stares down historical, societal, and generational trauma.
Costa Brava, Lebanon (dir. Mounia Akl)
Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki star in Mounia Akl’s impassioned debut, an eerie family drama set amid a raging climate crisis in near-future Lebanon.
Murina (dir. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović)
The dynamic between a restless teenager and her oppressive father changes when a family friend arrives at their isolated Croatian home.
Silent Land (dir. Agnieszka Woszczynska)
A bourgeois Polish couple’s relationship disintegrates during a stressful Italian vacation, in Aga Woszczyńska’s richly observed feature debut.
Quickening (dir. Haya Waseem)
The debut feature from writer-director Haya Waseem explores the life of a young woman of colour navigating love, heartbreak, and family turmoil.
The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (Luàna Bajrami)
In a remote Kosovar village, three young women who feel their dreams have been stifled go on a quest for independence.
*Title synopses from tiffr
Kristen Stewart in Spencer (2021)
It’s Christmas Eve, and Diana is late to dinner. Punctual kitchen and house staff quietly await her arrival. The food is ready. Rooms and tables are set in pristine condition, not designed to be disturbed but to be followed. As pointed out by Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), hired to observe and report Diana’s every move, all those employed by the Queen have taken an oath. It’s a sense of responsibility they fall back on, becoming less like human beings and more like lines in a rulebook. Not at all keen to follow any sort of rulebook, Diana’s individuality is weighed down by the expectation to behave a certain way. Over the course of a Christmas weekend at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, where Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is set, the qualities traditionally synonymous with the season such as togetherness and family time are capsuled in a world within a world. A world Diana shares only and understandably with a select few; her boys first and foremost, William and Harry. Her confidante, Maggie, as well. All the while, the chimes of tradition ring louder and louder, as she wrestles to break free. Standing out as a fable, Larraín brings a distinct perspective to Spencer that is so defiantly a unique story of character. Set apart from various portrayals of Princess Diana over the years, the film has an interesting ghostly element, as though being haunted by a previous life. Working wonders with Kristen Stewart as the beloved icon, Spencer is a stunning achievement.
A portrait of Princess Diana is painted in a thoughtful, curious, and surreal way. Rather than land on traditional points about a real-life figure and adhere to a typical biopic structure, Spencer experiments with style. The clarity in Larraín’s vision, coupled with Stewart’s laser focused performance as Diana, make for a resonating manic drama. The screenplay by Steven Knight finds strength in telling a story around a moment in time, exploring the finite details of a few days in her life. The story lives inside Diana’s mind, at a point where her marriage to Prince Charles is crumbling and the narrowing chilly world around her grows more watchful. During a weekend full of protocols, such as having a selection of outfits she must wear only at designated times, the film conveys how the overall environment affects Diana’s wellbeing. With a consistent and clear tone, Spencer takes on the form of a psychological drama operating from emotion, wearing its heart on its sleeve, portraying the sadness and loneliness of a woman who also has no one she can truly confide in at any given moment.
One of the more unique elements of Spencer is how magnificently the film plays on time. A weekend feels like a lifetime, capturing that distinct feeling around the holidays where time slows down. As though holding onto the idea of warmth and joy synonymous with the season. There is also a surreal feeling to the story, where the past and the present are the same. Diana has existed in this rigid setting and way of life for so long (nearly 10 years at the point the film is set), that her past becomes an evergreen ghost story. A previous life, one before Prince Charles, begins to haunt her and envelope her surroundings. Muted pastel palettes, hazy atmospheres with a coat of fog, the ominous figure of Anne Boleyn, nightmarish surrealist scenes like having pearl soup. With stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon, an often spooky-looking exterior creates vivid and dreamlike imagery that puts the story in an imaginative setting. Accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s memorable score, Jacqueline Durran’s gorgeous costume design, and an accomplished hair and makeup team that make all the work look effortless, Spencer is beautiful to look at.
Beyond the visual artistry, the casting of Princess Diana is of course the most crucial for this film, and casting Kristen Stewart is genius. In her most accomplished work to date, Stewart absorbs the character and sinks into a personal interpretation. It’s an unexpected performance in that she keeps each and every moment interesting. She reveals layers of wit, poignancy, and delightful awkwardness as the film unravels alongside her. She conveys the spirit of a woman wanting to break free, whose personality sees the light of day in bursts. It’s a performance rich in detail, from the change of body language when she’s in public vs. private. The relief but sadness in the moments she keeps to herself just from not having another soul to share with. She’s playful and curious, moving and unforgettable. Alongside her, a strong ensemble including Sean Harris, Timothy Spall, and especially Sally Hawkins work like magic. Hawkins, who plays Diana’s confidante Maggie, is another example of spot on casting. The actor has an instant quality of trust and warmth. She has a perfect scene with Stewart that gives the film an emotional release, a reminder to Diana that she is so loved, and conveys the importance of sharing love.
There are two vivid moments in Spencer that encompass such love. One, an entrancing dance sequence, showing an activity intimate to Diana, a personal expression of self that is as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming to watch. The other, a carefree moment shared between Diana and her boys as they sing together in the wind. The film intelligently shows the essence of the person; how does she feel, how does she make others feel, how do others on the outside feel about her. The blend of realism with surrealism gives Spencer a distinct perspective that stands out as its own creation and speaks with its own rhythm. At its core, a woman pondering on what she hopes to leave behind on this earth. Pablo Larraín and Kristen Stewart work wonders to shine a light on her impact.
Anna Claire Beitel, Liam Diaz, and Essence Fox in Scarborough (2021)
It’s easy to see why Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s Canadian film Scarborough was this year’s first runner-up for the TIFF People’s Choice. Adapted from Catherine Hernandez’s novel, the story is a compelling reflection of a community that is largely ignored. An interwoven story of family, neglect, hope, love, everyday acts of care. A story from which yearning for togetherness and understanding beams. Radiating with an open heart, Scarborough follows three children living in a low-income neighborhood who cross paths and become fast friends. Nakhai and Williamson bring an unmistakably empathetic approach to the community beating at the core of this story. With a lived-in observational quality, Scarborough takes a look at some of the people who make up the city of Scarborough in Ontario, Canada. The story paints a portrait of their everyday lives, all the ups and downs that occur at any given moment. It’s a community-driven film that finds focus in the perspectives of children, as they both absorb and endure their surroundings, which range from household to household. Led by remarkable child actors, Scarborough is one of the most vital films in recent memory.
Catherine Hernandez’s novel (sharing the film’s title) is a portrait of multiple voices in a tight-knit neighborhood whose needs are often neglected and pushed aside. Located east of Toronto, Scarborough buckles under the heaviness of low-income, racism, prejudice, and a system that constantly fails them. From the beginning of the film, Nakhai and Williamson establish a hurriedness to the story. The pacing is suitably frazzled as characters are on the move, in a rush to avoid potentially harmful situations approaching. The film introduces Edna (Ellie Posadas) as she wakes her son Bing (Liam Diaz) and gently instructs him in a panic to gather belongings, presumably before his father returns home. Elsewhere in another household, Jessica (Kristen MacCulloch) berates her daughter Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) to gather belongings, physically abusing her in the process. Hernandez, adapting her novel into the screenplay, opens this story in the thick of people’s lives, exploring what day-to-day looks like for them. Down to the finest details, the story gives so many layers to each character with remarkable subtlety. By bringing specificity to this community of people, with a focus on three households in particular, Scarborough feels far-reaching in its empathetic approach.
Among the people in this community are the families of Bing and Laura, as well as young Sylvie (Essence Fox) and her mother Marie (Cherish Violet Blood). Sylvie, Bing’s best friend, observes as her mother struggles to balance finding a permanent home and taking care of her autistic son Johnny (Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac). The children are brought together by a school program where families can drop in before classes, have access to free snacks, and simply have a safe space to be in. The literacy program is run by Ms Hina (Aliya Kanani), who cultivates a healthy and inclusive space for everyone to join in. She’s also witnessing first-hand the direct effects of low-income on educational resources. Her supervisor, who appears to mean well but really has no real grasp on the realities of this community, subtly discourages her from “running a soup kitchen”. In a stunning moment between the two characters late in the film, Hina makes her feelings known when her supervisor’s response to a sudden tragedy is all about “shock” and “I can’t imagine”. With faux pleasantries, she attempts to deny Hina the space to mourn. It’s one of the most quietly devastating moments in the film, to watch in real-time how a system has failed a child. The power of Hernandez’s writing is in making this community as multi-faceted and observational as possible. So much happens in between the lines, in the tiniest of gestures and actions, and the film soars by shining a light on those moments whether they are good, bad, or ugly.
The filmmakers exude a palpable love for the characters of Scarborough. It’s a marvel how the ensemble is filled with mostly first-time actors, delivering a level of performances one would find in the career of a seasoned performer with multiple credits to their name. Most impressive are child actors Liam Diaz, Anna Claire Beitel, and Essence Fox playing the three main kids Bing, Laura, and Sylvie. The many facets of this story are funneled through their perspectives, which are quite different from one another. The neglect Laura experiences is absolutely heartbreaking to watch, and Beitel is unforgettable in this role. Also wonderful are Fox and Diaz, who bring a wholehearted quality to their roles and just light up the screen. One of the most heartwarming moments arrives at the end with Diaz’s school talent show rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ a balm for the soul. An instant crowd pleasing moment.
Told with care, Scarborough gives visibility and depth to a multi-faceted community of people in a combative environment. It’s a wholehearted look at how people in close proximity to each other come together, and shines a light on those who are contributing acts of goodness in this world while facing hardships of their own. Hard to watch at times, given the unflinching look at an abusive household. Also remarkably grounded, not exaggerated and played for dramatic effect. This is a story with a lot to love, and a lot of love to give. Scarborough shows the resilience of a community, with beautiful incorporation of children and adults’ perspectives.