TIFF’s Platform competition became a two-tier program in 2019. The ten-film line-up boasted a bizarre range of quality with the two best films, Julie Delpy’s My Zoe and Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft, towering above the competition. While Platform has always been inconsistent, even the lesser films in the slate usually try something new and merit the festival spotlight. That was not the case in 2019 with a near-homogenous and mostly forgettable line-up. It was an off year for TIFF’s most promising showcase in its fifth iteration.
Strong Women vs. Shitty Men
This year’s competition seemed to be programmed around a central theme: women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Seven of the ten films centred on a female protagonist in a tailspin. The context and the particulars varied film by film, but overall they weren’t much different. Some characters were brilliantly and complexly constructed. Others flew off the rails for the sake of it.
While this line-up demonstrated TIFF’s commitment towards furthering stories with strong female leads, Platform of 2019 frustrated from a representational point of view because of how the festival chose to portray men in its competitive spotlight. Virtually every male character in every Platform film was either a rapist, a misogynist, an abuser, a jerk, a douchebag, a crook, a deadbeat, or altogether absent. The view of men projected here is cause for concern. One doesn’t need to put down one group in order to elevate another.
Sound of Metal
Perhaps the lone standout in the field of stories of shitty men was Sound of Metal, the dramatic directorial debut of Place Beyond the Pines writer Darius Marder. While it ran an hour too long with its needlessly lethargic duration of 140 minutes, Sound of Metal features a bravura performance by Riz Ahmed as a drummer who loses his hearing after one concert too many.
The film takes audiences through the experience of deafness with a phenomenal sound design. It puts audiences inside the heads of the hearing impaired. Subjective sound conveys a world of muffled noises and indiscernible sounds, while distortion and clamour disorient a viewer when the story broaches the topic of cochlear implants. Presented with closed captioning for the hearing impaired, Sound of Metal adds to the complexity of representational programming in Platform. Although clearly empathetic with deaf viewers, it’s ultimately made for a hearing audience. The intricacy of its sound design is key to every emotional beat and nuance of the film. (Read Michael McNeely’s review of Sound of Metal here.)
The Argentina-Uruguay Show
Also problematic is the fact that Platform devoted 20% of its line-up to Argentinian-Uruguayan co-productions. Fans looking for great Latin American cinema could only find the two worst films of the line-up, and the festival overall: Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger and Paula Hernández’s The Sleepwalkers. Both films are beneath a competitive line-up: Moneychanger for its utterly pedestrian story of an arrogant banker/money launderer and Sleepwalkers with its cavalcade of horny lunatics. The former film centres on an arrogant male lead, while the latter film features an ensemble of characters flying off the rails with irrational, unmotivated, and unconvincing behaviour.
As the lone “comedy” in the line-up, Moneychanger offers few laughs. Each joke lands with a thud thanks to Daniel Hendler’s unbearably annoying performance. Hendler did double-duty in Platform with a mercifully brief supporting turn in Sleepwalkers. His presence in the line-up underscores the absence of better films that could have taken a slot in the competition. For example, documentaries were entirely absent from Platform for the fourth consecutive year. If TIFF programmed Moneychanger and Sleepwalkers as some sort of package deal, one hopes they kept the receipts.
Working Women: Proxima and Wet Season
Stories of working women and motherhood see mixed results in the competition titles Proxima, directed by Alice Winocour, and Wet Season from director Anthony Chen. Both films feature female protagonists wrestling with their careers and their aspirations as a parent. Proxima offers a strong performance by Eva Green as Sarah, a woman readying for a mission to space who encounters workplace sexism and struggles with her daughter’s emotional detachment.
Although Winocour probes deeply into the details of the astronaut program and illustrates how women excel in a field traditionally dominated by men, Proxima is a bit too on-the-nose with its misogyny. Its most creative spark is having Sarah’s co-worker make a joke that she’s there for her French cooking. Two other TIFF films about women in flight, The Aeronauts and Lucy in the Sky, deal with these same concerns more creatively and with more nuanced, while providing grander cinematic adventures compared to Proxima’s near-clinical workplace drama. It’s a cold movie—so cold one could declare it clinically dead.
Wet Season, meanwhile, suffers from the same peculiarly irrational behaviour that defines many Platform films. Yeo Yann Yann stars as Ling, a Malaysian woman in Singapore who teaches Chinese and longs to have a baby. In the absence of her deadbeat drunk of a husband, she befriends a struggling student (Koh Jia Ler) and confronts the apparent pointlessness of her life. Chen demonstrates a fine hand at direction and makes good on the promise of his debut Ilo Ilo by incorporating the weather and the disheartening dampness of wet season to convey Ling’s despair. As a writer, however, Chen’s characters feel inauthentic as their icky situation takes predictable turns, leading to some handsomely composed shots with eye-roll inducing drama. Wet Season isn’t the sum of its arresting images—pretty to look at, but hard to care.
Working Men: Martin Eden and Workforce
One can say the same for the competition’s winner, Martin Eden by Pietro Marcello. Martin Eden boasts luminous 16mm cinematography, but it’s an exercise in patience. This Italian adaptation of Jack London’s novel struggles with pacing and narrative incoherence. It has a strong, loud, and bellowing performance by Luca Marinelli in the title role. Embodying the prototypical Angry Young Man, Marinelli, who won Best Actor at Venice, elevates Marin Eden. It’s a full-blooded interpretation of London’s character. But the film’s essay on class, wealth, and privilege doesn’t quite measure up to David Zonana’s fellow Platform title Workforce, a film that says more with less.
Workforce, the lone debut feature in competition, is minimalism at its finest. Zonana’s film offers a parable of working class inequity as it observes the lives of construction workers at a luxury home who become motivated when a bizarre accident leaves their co-worker dead and his widow penniless. Their employer and the homeowner place no value on the lives that commit themselves to constructing a luxury home before retiring to impoverished dwellings, and they continue to swindle the workers at every turn.
Workforce takes a dark turn. Francisco (Luis Alberti), the victim’s brother, leads a small-scale social uprising when their search for justice encounters one bureaucratic delay after another. Using an array of long shots and meticulously composed tableaus, Workforce conveys the power of a united front. It observes the details of working class life and labour that are often outside the frame. Zonana’s humorous and damning essay is an assured first feature.
Another stronger entry is Sarah Gavron’s fifth feature Rocks, which was Platform’s opening night film. This powerful film drops audiences into the world of Nigerian teen Shola (Bukky Bakray), aka Rocks, during a life-altering event. Bakray is excellent as the young woman forced to grow up too soon when she is left to care for her little brother, Emmanuel, after her mother abandons them. Gavron’s film finds its power in observing the resilience of its heroine without sugarcoating the ordeal. The film is frank and sobering with its portrait of love that endured in the worst of situations as Rocks and Emmanuel provided each other strength.
Rocks also stands out with its tale of female friendship. As Rocks balances everyday growing pains with her living situation, her friends are rocks that anchor her. Gavron’s hand talent behind the camera is obvious through the performances she draws from the young ensemble. Her trust in the young actors sees ample rewards. The film’s youthful vitality brings an energy and authentic voice one hoped to find in the festival.
Anne, Deragh, and Kazik
If any Platform film can be defined by its breathtaking energy though, that title goes to Kazik Radwanski’s excellent Anne at 13000 ft. The film doesn’t waste a second of its sparse 76-minute running time. Each frame propels its character forward into a tailspin. The film boasts the standout performance of the festival in Deragh Campbell’s committed turn as the titular Anne, a 27-year-old daycare worker who cracks under the pressure of societal expectations.
The role is physically and emotionally demanding as Anne unravels. She finds herself in free-fall—perfectly realized in the sky-diving scenes that add heart-pounding intensity throughout the film. Campbell keeps the film real and grounded no matter how seemingly irrational Anne behaves. Radwanski’s immediate verité style harnesses the raw power of Campbell’s performance for maximal effect. This character-driven white knuckler leaves a viewer breathless and terrified—but completely transfixed by the woman unravelling on screen. It’s one of the most exciting and original films from the Toronto scene in recent memory.
Best in Show: My Zoe
The title for best in show, however, goes to Julie Delpy’s breathtaking custody drama My Zoe. Delpy reinvents herself as a filmmaker and gives her best performance to date with My Zoe. This film is the biggest surprise of the festival overall and the true out-of-the-gate masterpiece at TIFF. To reveal much of what happens would be a disservice to this tale of a custody battle gone tragically awry. Delpy’s divorcée Isabelle fights with all her heart to keep her daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally) following a difficult split from her ex-husband James (Richard Armitage). Delpy and the cast craft every character with depth and down-to-earth emotion, which makes the drama doubly harrowing. There are no easy outs in this emotional minefield that Delpy navigates.
My Zoe brilliantly exploits the power of the unexpected. The film keeps a viewer dancing with anticipation as one turn reveals another. Delpy’s drama takes audiences to places they never imagined they would be going from the outset of the film. Delpy bends genres and subtly, almost imperceptibly, reveals the world in which her drama exists. Each twist brings a new emotional turn as Delpy ensures that audiences are as deeply invested in Isabelle’s plight as she is.
Delpy performs triple duty as writer, actor, and director, and she excels at all three tasks. While she’s always been excellent as both an actor and a writer, My Zoe is a major leap forward for Delpy as a director. She is in uncharted territory here. Zoe is far from the neurotic characters of the Woody Allen-ish 2 Days in Paris and Lolo, and the no-frills allure of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. If My Zoe bears any resemblance to Delpy’s previous work, it’s simply in the complexity of her characters, her attention to cinematic space and time, and her willingness to be bold.
Delpy’s direction is assured, confident, and precise. She provokes difficult questions engaging with both the heart and the mind. Each twist and turn of My Zoe reveals to audiences how difficult, but necessary, it is to listen to both at the same time. As cerebral as it is heartbreaking, My Zoe is a highly ambitious film about the power of a mother’s love. Even in an off year, Platform is the place to find the next generation of auteurs at the festival.