The parents and children of TIFF

Three movies the the Toronto film festival present different versions of the cinematic parent — Interfering Mother, Distant Father — with varying success

 

By Jay Stone

 

TORONTO — It was parent-and-child day at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is always interesting for those of us who are parents and wonder which of several cinematic categories we might fall into: Distant Father, Interfering Mother, Demanding Taskmaster (or –mistress), Indifferent Hippie or Kooky Eccentric. I think that’s all of them.

 

We began with a terrific little coming-of-age title called Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan — heroine of yesterday’s movie marathon and providing further proof here that she can do no wrong — as a rebellious high school student growing up in terrifyingly unhip Sacramento, Calif. She laughs with her best friend, dumps the friend for some new rich kids, dumps the rich kids for the old friend, meets a couple of boys who are variously unsuitable in just the right high school way, and falls in love with theatre by being cast in the chorus line of a school production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, a detail that pleased me disproportionately.

 

She also has hilariously fraught arguments with her Interfering Mother (Laurie Metcalf) who greets the news of her desire to attend college in the culturally rich East Coast by reminding her that she can’t even pass her driving test. Her ally is her softhearted dad (Tracy Letts) who, in the manner of dads everywhere — on screen and in the movies — loves his little girl to pieces.

 

The girl’s name is Christine, but she has renamed herself Lady Bird for reasons of high school girldom, and she seems to represent a version of Greta Gerwig, the somewhat offbeat indie film star who wrote and directed the movie. Ronan manages to convey Gerwig’s skewed, behind-the-beat sense of outsider yearning (not to mention her winningly lopsided beauty), and although the film runs on a few minutes too long, it is acutely observed, honest, funny and touching. It makes you think that perhaps Greta Gerwig also can do no wrong.

 

After a few minutes to compose ourselves, we dropped in on a Canada-U.S. co-production called Kodachrome for a few minutes, and ended up staying for the whole thing. It’s a father-and-son road film whose conclusions you will be able to guess within the first 10 minutes, but it still holds your attention on the basis of some fine performances, not to mention the comfortable sense of completion one gets when all the predictable pieces fall into place.

 

Jason Sudakis plays Matt, a record company executive who’s behind the times —he can identify good music, but he can’t figure out how to make money from it in the digital age — who’s contacted by a representative of his estranged father, Ben (Ed Harris), a famous photojournalist now dying of liver cancer. Ben wants Matt to drive him, in his retro car, from New York City to Parsons, Kansas, where the last photo lab in the world that can develop Kodachrome film is about to go out of business (this really happened in 2010.) Matt reluctantly agrees, accompanied by the representative, the comely Zooey (Elizabeth Olsen).

 

Harris’s role is that of the Distant Father, which he digs into with grizzled relish: Ben is rude, abrupt, cruel and entirely unlovable, and Matt laughs bitterly at the idea that this road trip is meant to represent some kind of phony reconciliation. In fact it is, but the movie’s acknowledgement of this makes it slightly easier to swallow: we’re all in this together, the film seems to be saying, so sit back and watch how nicely it happens. I can’t say I loved it, but I did stick around.

 

By now it was time to join the impressively long line-up for Molly’s Game, one of the festival’s big-deal movies. It’s written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, TV’s reigning guru of smart talk, making his movie debut and taking advantage of longer running times (the movie clocks in at 140 minutes) to present reams of quickly-spoken dialogue, much of it in voice-over.

 

Jessic Chastain — clad for most of the film in eye-catching décolletage — plays Molly Bloom, a former Olympic-class skier who went on to run famous big-money poker games in Los Angeles and then New York. She was a powerful female entrepreneur, until she was eventually charged with illegal gambling and wrote a book about her life among the high-stakes glitterati, movie stars, athletes, investment bankers and others who won and lost millions at her tables.

 

Told with visual panache reminiscent of Wolf of Wall Street, the intricacies of Molly’s Game are sometimes hard to follow, but it presents a fascinating cast of characters who flock to Molly’s tables to be greeted by brainy former Playmates and try to outwit one another. In an inspired bit of casting Michael Cera, who not so long ago was the reigning boy-next-door in films about earnest nerds, plays a mysterious actor who out-bluffs and outthinks most of the other players at the table.

 

Idris Elba is also excellent as the lawyer who helps defend Molly and who is raising a strong, independent daughter of his own. There’s a parallel with Molly’s own father, a Demanding Taskmaster, played by Kevin Costner, who is incidental to the movie until a rather unfortunate, scene near the end when he shows up to provide a psychological explanation of Molly’s odd choice of career.

 

The movie strains to make Molly more of a heroine than the narrative can bear, but the subject matter — poker, celebrity, super-wealth, beautiful women — is compelling and Chastain embodies a memorable female character of a kind not often seen in films.

 

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