Toronto International Film Festival offers a gallery of poignant characters


The frustration of the Toronto International Film Festival is that it’s impossible to see every film that sounds intriguing, especially when you’re not there for the duration of the event. But no doubt the worthiest and buzziest films will be hitting screens in the near future and those FOMO emotions will soon recede.

I’ve already written about the unexpected delights of Audience Award winner Green Book, the delicate impact of If Beale Street Could Talk, the powerhouse performances in A Star Is Born, the technical achievement of First Man, and the poignancy of hearing from the real-life subjects of the drug-addiction drama Beautiful Boy. Here are a few more highlights:

My first Toronto screening was Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, a real change of pace from the director of Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult and Tully. From its extended opening shot of the chaos of news trucks outside the 1984 Democratic National Convention, the film evokes the loose, panoramic style of the great Robert Altman, who often portrayed the circus-like aspects of human behavior. The subject here is Gary Hart, the charismatic Colorado senator who at one time was the Democratic Party’s great hope to win the Presidency in 1988. But Hart’s fatal flaw was his womanizing, and one tabloid in particular, the Miami Herald, made a national scandal out of his extramarital affair with a campaign worker named Donna Rice and the infamous photo of them together on a yacht too aptly named Monkey Business. The script by Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Reitman, based on Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out, leaves it up to the audience to decide whether Hart was the victim of an overeager press or deserved his downfall. (In earlier times, FDR and JFK were given a pass by the “gentlemen press” for similar behavior, and today Donald Trump seems to thrive despite much seamier transgressions.) Hugh Jackman convinces as a magnetic political star with a streak of haughty pride that does not serve him well in riding out the publicity storm, and Vera Farmiga brings fierceness and complexity to the role of Hart’s pained wife, Lee, who protests, “These people want to feel outrage for me—it doesn’t belong to them.”

Another Toronto standout was Can You Ever Forgive Me?, also the chronicle of a downfall. The flawed subject here is Lee Israel, a cantankerous, real-life New York celebrity biographer who has fallen out of fashion. Desperate, she lands on a scheme to fabricate letters composed by famous people, and finds her scam very lucrative indeed—until she's caught. In a revelatory departure, comic cut-up Melissa McCarthy finds the pathos in a difficult, contrary woman you’d probably flee at a party. Richard E. Grant is priceless as her acerbic partner-in-crime, and director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) perfectly captures the NYC subculture in which Lee briefly thrives.

Also financially struggling but far more heroic is Rosie, the title character in a searing drama about a young Dublin couple with four children who lose their house and must deal with the day-to-day tension of finding a place to settle each night. Amidst driving her kids to and from school while husband John Paul works as a dishwasher, Rosie is constantly on the phone with various hotels on a long list provided by the government social-services bureaucracy; the answer is almost always “No vacancies.” There’s very little plot beyond that (Rosie is estranged from her mother for good reason), but screenwriter Roddy Doyle (The Commitments) and director Paddy Breathnach create a compelling portrait of good people trying to stay afloat and maintain some semblance of normalcy in their children’s lives. The performances are all documentary-level credible, but lead Sarah Greene is especially noble and heartbreaking.

Other memorably poignant characters in Toronto were Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), a teen placed in a nightmarishly “reasonable” gay-conversion facility, and his gradually enlightened mom (Nicole Kidman) in Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased; Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan), the frustrated 1960s Montana housewife, and Joe (Ed Oxenbould), the teenage son agonized over what’s happening to his parents’ marriage, in Paul Dano’s impressive Wildlife; and Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a teenage girl traumatized by the needless police shooting of a close friend in George Tillman, Jr.’s The Hate U Give.

Also poignant, on a global-impact scale, is Mikhail Gorbachev, the former General Secretary of the Soviet Union, interviewed at age 87 by veteran documentarian Werner Herzog in Meeting Gorbachev. So many of us long for the days of a U.S. President, any President, before Donald Trump, but you’ll be equally nostalgic in these awful Putin days about the six-year reign of Gorbachev, who brought unprecedented freedom and reforms to a nation often ruled by totalitarians and helped end the Cold War. But his reforms also created instability, and Gorbachev eventually ceded power after an attempted coup. (In a rare glimpse of would-be ruthlessness, Gorbachev says of his rival Boris Yeltsin, “I should have sent him off somewhere—I regret it to this day.”) Herzog and Gorbachev have an immediate rapport, and the latter comes across as a most intelligent, humane and ingratiating gentleman. Ah, the potential lost!