The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a city on the moon, Christian skater kids, and a guy who became a rock star without even realizing it.
Directed by Simon Ennis
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
There’s quixotic and then there’s Christopher Carson, one of the silver-tongued and eerily charismatic stars of Canadian Simon Ennis’s infectious documentary Lunarcy!.
The film follows the exploits of a disparate band of saucer-eyed dreamers who devote their lives to the moon, going so far as to advocate for its colonization. As a scheme, that’s about on par with Lex Luthor’s master plan in Superman Returns, but what keeps Lunarcy! from devolving into either an easy satirical portrait of a group of eccentrics or a mawkish celebration of good-natured oddballs tilting at windmills is its genuine goodwill toward the sort of people who make impossible pursuits their life’s work.
As the punning title might suggest, that’s a tricky tone to pull off, but apart from the occasional overbearing intertitle or orchestral flourish, Ennis is on solid ground here, rendering these nuts’ pioneering spirit with a delicate comic touch. You may not share their belief that resettling on the moon is for the betterment of humanity (Carson’s slogan is “Lunar City or bust”) but their nostalgia for a brief moment in the 1960s when space travel seemed on the verge of being democratized for everyday citizens is hard to resist.
Only the Young
Directed by Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Few subjects are as likely to inspire a game of ideological football as religion and youth culture, which makes Elizabeth Mims’s and Jason Tippet’s non-programmatic Only the Young as refreshing as it is lovely. A gorgeously lensed portrait of a trio of big-hearted Christian skater kids on the verge of high school graduation in their Southern Californian desert town, Only the Young is part of a spate of recent observational documentaries that privilege beauty over information, trading the usual talking head interviews for a more visually accomplished style.
That isn’t to say that the film is primarily an aesthetic rather than an affecting experience. Mims and Tippet are always attuned to the complicated emotional lives of their leads, childhood best friends Garrison and Kevin and their tomboyish platonic friend and sometimes love interest Skye. Apart from their spiritual dilemmas, which never quite rise to a critical state, their problems are as ordinary as any teen’s—where to go after school ends, for one, or whether to follow or diverge from their parents as they mature into adulthood. Familiar as their problems are, the trio’s personalities are offbeat, especially in the case of Skye, a mildly acerbic wallflower who can’t bring herself to dismiss Garrison’s new girlfriend except to say that she’s a “hip-hop dancing liberal,” the closest she ever gets to being mean.
Sweetness is a difficult thing to capture onscreen without tipping into insufferable whimsy, but Mims and Tippet are more than up to the challenge, capturing the teens’ earnest conversations about their faith and their devotion to each other in the same lyrical register as their dreamy footage of Garrison’s and Kevin’s tricks on skateboards. The result is a beguiling experience that makes you realize just how condescending films about teens usually are.
Searching for Sugar Man
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodríguez wasn’t exactly living the life of a rock star when he hung up his guitar to work as a demolition man in the early 1970s. Though his two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, were reasonably well received by critics, they barely sold a dozen copies between them. At least that’s what the artist thought. What Rodríguez didn’t know was that his anti-establishment anthems were some of the hottest and most frequently banned songs in South Africa during apartheid.
Searching for Sugar Man is a charming and often very moving look at the circumstances by which an unknown American artist came to be the South African equivalent of Bob Dylan. It’s buoyed, to that end, by its likable subject, as well as by the cadre of South African men who’ve studied his image on the Cold Fact cover with the intensity of naval codebreakers. Though Rodríguez is initially thought dead by his greatest fans—from a gruesome onstage self-immolation, no less—he turns out to be alive, well, and humble to the extent that he’s still living in the same town where fame last left him. He hardly even registers the unfairness of his subsistence living, seeming only mildly disappointed by the lack of royalty cheques.
Director Malik Bendjelloul runs a reasonably tight ship here, keeping Rodríguez’s new dawn under wraps as long as possible. That makes for a good story, but not necessarily an honest one. The filmmaker cheats a bit by fudging the timeline of Rodríguez’s belated discovery: he ascribes it to the dawn of the internet, when in fact Rodríguez began touring outside the States as early as 1979. The film also sidesteps Rodríguez’s substantial Australian popularity altogether, presumably in the interest of time. Still, there’s an underlying truth to the idea that Rodríguez is someone who’s very much still being sought and found, regardless of when and where the second wind came. Anyone who sees this modest film, which has become a respectable indie hit, will be heartened to know its soundtrack is the artist’s highest charting release ever. It only took 40 years.