The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a sci-fi throwback, a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Thunder Bay, and a delicate relationship drama.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
The Royal (608 College Street)
Jeff Nichols makes a tepid bid for classical genre filmmaking with Midnight Special, which aims for the formalist wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind but registers about as faintly as Bruce Willis’s similarly plotted pre-Sixth Sense dud Mercury Rising. With Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Nichols seemed poised to be the fresh face of a rugged American cinema about salt of the earth Texan dudes with big problems. But somewhere between there and Mud, a sweet but warmed over YA, he’s started to plateau, and Midnight Special is a sad next step down for such a talent. The story of an unearthly boy and the dad who loves him that works as a regionalist drama and a vehicle for Michael Shannon’s immaculately furrowed brow but fails at the basic world-building of the best science fiction.
Shannon is typically great as Roy, a Texan cult escapee gliding through back country at night with his state trooper friend and right-hand man Lucas (Joel Egerton) at his side and deathly pale son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in the backseat, covered in blankets and reading Superman comics by flashlight. Alton is a special kid, though you wouldn’t know it from Lieberher’s blank performance: he’s wanted by the FBI for cracking secret codes and treated as a benign god by his father’s former church—a buttoned up Puritan crowd which barely makes an impression past the first 10 minutes—on account of the neat tricks he plays with his eyes.
Nichols tries to mine the symbolic potential of Alton’s redemptive vision of another world layered over our sad dirt bowl, but backs himself into a corner in the process, turning up routine images of utopian cityscapes that unfortunately pale in comparison to Brad Bird’s similar aesthetic in Tomorrowland. As good as Nichols is at capturing his lily-white milieu, there’s also something uncomfortable about yet another film going through the motions of celebrating and protecting the inherent specialness of a white boy cipher. Still, Nichols has directing chops to spare, and makes a lot out of a nearly wordless opening act; pity about the rest.
Directed by Andrew Cividino
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Northern Ontario’s cottage country serves as an ominous backdrop for a familiar but well-realized coming-of-age drama in Andrew Cividino’s debut feature Sleeping Giant. Adapted from his short by the same title, the film follows shy, middle class teenager Adam (Jackson Martin) over his family vacation, as he slums with cousins Nate (Nick Serino) and Riley (Reece Moffett), a pair of locals who push him to the edge of his polite, coddled habits and trigger his latent aggression.
Cividino has scored a casting coup with Serino, a wiry kid with comic instincts and a puckish, trickster air about him. Serino is so good in his seemingly semi-improvised scenes with the other boys (and his real-life grandmother) that he raises their game throughout. Proud, bullish, and easily bruised where it counts, he’s also a strong character on whom to stake a third act twist that might otherwise feel cheap.
Character-driven and class-conscious but also formally tight, the film is an accomplished debut, though not without its limitations. The percussive score by Chris Thornborrow and Bruce Peninsula aims to capture the boys’ primal instincts but worryingly ties them to a faux-indigenous, primitivist aesthetic that suggests they are going Native as they go at each other with full force. The numerous interludes of Adam and company taking out their male rage on their natural surroundings also feel a bit phoney—a vague shortcut to a more specific and trenchant critique of how the male culture of violence and entitlement that these boys are being raised in threatens the very environment that nurtures them. We’re not sure we buy what he’s selling yet, but Cividino seems well worth watching.
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Andrew Haigh turns in another two-hander about a symbiotic relationship tested by time and circumstance in 45 Years. The Weekend director and executive producer of the prematurely cancelled Looking has built a sterling early career out of observant portraits of transient love among gay men. He parlays that interest nicely into this intricately woven story of longtime married couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), whose marriage begins to show its cracks when the body of Geoff’s old girlfriend, killed in an accident in the Swiss Alps before Kate was in the picture, resurfaces.
Haigh is a smart and subtle filmmaker, expertly wielding what might have been a disastrous metaphor about a glacier that yields new fruit after melting as a commentary on the couple’s own thawing past. Rampling, for her part, is terrific, her face a delicate mask of emotion; she’s nearly good enough to make you momentarily set aside her dumb comments about the supposed reverse racism of the #Oscarssowhite protest. At times, though, Haigh’s design feels a bit programmatic: the marital surprises, when they are revealed, seem a little too obvious and preordained, and the effect of their revelation too muted. Even so, this is a moving, beautifully acted film that lands its punches with just the right force.