TIFF 2022 Report #1

The Fabelmans (Spielberg, 2022)

It is not particularly surprising that directors will, at some point in their careers, make one movie based on their lives to which they can pour their heart and soul into. It is probably more interesting to see these kinds of films arrive in quick succession: Last year, for instance, Kenneth Branagh charmed audiences with his semi-autobiographical Belfast, while a few years prior to that, Alfonso Cuarón honoured his childhood housekeeper in Roma. Both films, of course, received numerous accolades and Academy Award wins. Now it is the great Steven Spielberg’s turn to delve into his bank of memories with The Fabelmans, and there is no doubt that more awards love will follow for this new addition to his illustrious legacy. Following the movements of a middle-class Jewish family (which Spielberg does not try hard to disguise as a cinematic depiction of his own family) throughout different American cities during the 1950s and ‘60s, The Fabelmans acts as both a testament to Spielberg’s development into the filmmaker he is today and a reckoning with the sins and tumults of the past, including the separation of his parents and the bullying and anti-Semitism he was forced to endure during his schooling years.

I am not too familiar with Spielberg’s biography, so I cannot say which segments contain the most truths, and which ones play looser with the facts. But regardless of accuracy and notions of fidelity to the past, the film is swooningly warm and tender, with memories—both fond and bitter—being realized with the same kind of care and sensitivity that always radiates from the screen. Spielberg knows implicitly that both success and sadness can be intertwined to shape our future selves, so he brings these alternating moments to the fore with an acute awareness and empathy for the subjects at hand. Indeed, even characters who seem impossible to redeem are given a generous complexity and inner pain that, perhaps, another filmmaker might not have afforded. This is especially the case with Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams), the filmic stand-in for Spielberg’s mother, who ends up falling in love with her husband’s best friend (Seth Rogen). While the film holds her to account for her infidelity, so much of the film also feels like a tribute to her inner goodness and sacrifices. Most poignant is its depiction of precarious mental well-being, which suffered after her mother’s death and further deteriorated the unhappier she became with her marital life. As Mitzi, Williams turns in one of the best performances of her career, which is at once outsized and beautifully internalized, and no doubt doing absolute justice to the woman who helped shape Spielberg’s entire world.

The film is simply awash in excellent performances: newcomer Gabriel LaBelle is superb as Sam Fabelman (or teen Spielberg, as it were); Paul Dano greatly affecting as the doting family patriarch; and industry veterans Judd Hirsch and David Lynch practically steal the film with their short scenes, particularly the former, whose thunderous monologues crackle like volts of electricity. But the truest star of the film really is Spielberg’s sincerity and honesty as he recreates these memories and gives them the touch of a true master still in his prime. He may not be breaking new ground when it comes to cinematic autofiction, but at the same time, it may not have been necessary for him to do so when he so successfully and movingly turns the camera on himself and lets us peek into the distant past.

how to blow up a pipeline (Goldhaber, 2022)

Some books one would never expect to receive film treatments, especially academic texts. And yet, Daniel Goldhaber and his team have done that by taking Andreas Malm’s controversial 2021 nonfiction book and turning it into a high-octane eco-thriller of impressive dexterity. It helps that the plot is lean, without being bogged down by superfluous distractions. We have a group of disaffected youths and adults from different walks of life who, by chance or otherwise, eventually band together to do exactly as the title suggests: demolish a Texas refinery’s pipeline using homemade chemical explosives to destabilize the markets and send jitters down the spines of the wealthy, all in the name of urgently seeking to turn the tide on climate change and have large industries move away from pollutant practices.

As Malm argues in his book, if peaceful activism is getting us nowhere, then a logical next step would be to use more extreme measures, such as targeted destruction of property, to move the needle and fight rampant feelings of fatalism about our role in preventing climate catastrophes. His thesis is deployed here in a fictional scenario, with the characters debating and discoursing his arguments while putting them to the ultimate test. It is a smart and riveting way to give voice to Malm’s ideas while avoiding more traditional (and duller) routes, such as a talking-head documentary—even if, at times, there is not much in the way of nuance when it comes to delivering Malm’s central theses through these characters.

Indeed, the script is not entirely perfect; the characters and their backstories are only introduced gradually through infrequent flashbacks that sometimes lack polish and threaten to hamper the pacing of the present-day action. I didn’t mind getting to know the characters more intimately, but this creative decision ends up being more disjointed in practice than perhaps it was on paper. However, these minor imperfections do not take away from the sheer magnetism of the central plot, which thrives on the smallest details that build and build into more precarious and riveting scenarios. It is a story of multiple high-wire acts of daring being carried out in quick succession, with no option for failure lest everything comes crashing down.

To say much more would do the film a disservice, for it all works best when it keeps you in the dark, so all I can do is to encourage people to see it when it’s released so they can generate intelligent and productive discussion of what it’s advocating for. It’s the very kind of film that asks you to reckon with your preconceived notions, especially when it’s in the name of all we hold dear as a civilization.

Something You Said Last Night (De Filippis, 2022)

Not too many films deal with the dynamics between trans folx and their family units, and rarer still do we get stories in which the trans subject’s identity is already so unconsciously acknowledged and met with an unquestioning acceptance that the very word “trans” does not need to be uttered. That is the refreshing thing about Luis De Filippis’s feature debut: It is a film about trans livelihood without seeking to cater to preconceptions and stale notions about how trans life should be depicted cinematically. Its central character, Ren (played with beautiful sensitivity by Carmen Madonia) is much like any twentysomething out there: She has trouble holding down a job and finding stable income, is in turns both annoyed and gratified by the somewhat overbearing concern and attentiveness of her talkative mother (Ramona Milano), and she loves her younger sister Siena (Paige Evans) to bits. Through the simple yet effective setup of having Ren and her family in close contact during a sleepy beachfront vacation, the undercurrents that cultivate and test their bonds are left to naturally play out through the subtlest microaggressions and acts of loyalty. Through it all, Ren’s identity as a trans woman defines her only by small degrees; instead, what De Filippis gives us is a more complete portrait of both her natural integrity and lingering immaturity as she continues to press onwards into full-fledged adulthood.

Something You Said Last Night is a quiet film if you measure it by its eventfulness. Ren and her family begin and end their summer vacation in the same place, eventually leaving their rented guesthouse to a cleaning lady who begins to tidy it for the next family. The story begins and ends in the car with old Italian pop songs, everyone singing along with a mixture of exuberance and embarrassment in the way only those of the same bloodline can condone. Life comes and goes, and with it the typical squabbles and low blows of fleeting discord. But in that quietness is a great deal of authenticity, which is what De Filippis is so good at conveying without the need to make grand gestures.

I Like Movies (Levack, 2022)

If Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird captured the lives of aimless working-class Catholic schoolgirls with rebellious instincts, Chandler Levack’s I Like Movies will be immensely relatable to homegrown Ontario kids who grew up amongst the shelves of VHS tapes at movie rental stores while watching Saturday Night Live with their best friends. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that was set so extensively in Aldershot, Burlington, for instance, and Levack captures the sleepiness of small-town Canadian suburbia with a great amount of knack. Her keen sense of setting is only second to the seemingly hundreds of movie and early-aughts pop culture references she drops into the script that will tickle anyone who grew up during that time (myself included).

I did wish that the meticulous amount of detail ended up serving a more developed story, however. Though Isaiah Lehtinen gives a memorable performance as the troubled Lawrence Kweller, a graduating high school teen and cinephile desperately setting his sights on a prestigious film school without a more practical path forward, the film handles some of the weightier material in the script (including such things as parental suicide, sexual abuse in the film industry, self-harm and misogyny) with a somewhat rote and disengaging air, as though they were chess pieces needing to be collected to get to the end of the story. The characters don’t feel shaded-in enough for these revelations to either surprise or devastate us, which becomes distracting when Levack pulls off the lighter elements of the script so well by contrast.

Despite the disjointedness, I Like Movies nevertheless possesses enough charm to win you over because of Levack’s sterling commitment to detail, and if you’re an Ontarian, especially, you will find yourself awash in nostalgia as she transports you back to what now seems like a bygone era.