12 September, 2010

The Loss of Innocence At TIFF

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Yesterday was September 11th, and again I find myself in the city of Toronto, as I did in 2001......when the planes crashed, the towers fell, the buildings burned and America lost its innocence. It was a very strange place to be back then, in the midst of covering a film festival, while one's city was in chaos. For those of us from New York, there was a shared concern about the loss of loved ones, the security of our friends and family and the frustrations of not being able to place phone calls or find a flight back home. I ended up staying in Toronto an extra 5 days, because there were no airplanes flying anywhere near New York. As the images unfolded and were repeated endlessly on television, I knew that I had experienced a seminal moment, which now is summed up in the internationally recognized 9-11.

Many things have happened since, too many in the name of "avenging" 9-11, and here we still sit, sifting through the messages of what it all means. For filmmakers, this meditation on the loss of innocence has been a potent subject. And at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, it is the theme of a good many films in the program.

Many of the films are focused on children and young people, the potent symbols of innocence, and the ways that they lose this child-like wonder....a symbol of a national and international awakening to pain and loss. In TRUST, a 14-year-old girl believes she is in love with the boy she endlessly communicates with via internet chat rooms. When they finally meet and she discovers that he is, in fact, a middle-aged man, she does not have the skills or the maturity to know how to repel his sexual advances. She is raped in a motel room but still clings to the fantasy that this is true love, age difference be damned. It is only when the FBI, called in to find the sexual predator, reveals that he has done the same thing to other pre-teen girls, that she visibily ages 10 years and understands how she has been manipulated and forever changed.

Actor-turned-director David Schwimmer (yes, he of FRIENDS fame) brings a strong sense of foreboding to the tale, which is enhanced by a smart script and the high calibre of acting. Newcomer Liana Liberato is a real find as the teenager, who is unsure of herself and ready to believe the lies of a stranger to make her feel better about herself. The parents in pain are wonderfully played by Clive Owen (in an internalized performance that strays from his usual swaggering style) and Catherine Keener (in the weaker role but still effective). The film is not afraid to be emotionally raw and while it offers a sense of reconciliation in the end, it is clear that innocence is indeed lost forever.

In Darren Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN, a psychological drama set in the competitive world of professional ballet, actress Natalie Portman plays a timid but dedicated dancer who is given the chance to play the role of a lifetime. In a new version of the Tchaikovsky classic Swan Lake, the demanding ballet director (Vincent Cassel) decides to have one dancer portray the twos sides of the Swan Queen: the innocent and naive White Swan and the sensual and seductive Black Swan. As pressures mount and family tensions become unbearable, the young woman's grip on reality fades and she moves from her precocious innocence to a hardened heart. The performance, sure to be remembered at Oscar time, is a terrifying transformation that demonstrates how the harshness of the world can corrupt the soul.

NEVER LET ME GO by UK director Mark Romanek is an adaptation of the celebrated novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (REMAINS OF THE DAY), an existential sci-fi film with great emotional depth. Three of the UK's finest young actors (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) play young people who have been genetically modified since birth to eventually become organ donors in a futuristic society that has eradicated disease. Sheltered from the outside world at a special school hidden in the countryside, the teenagers eventually discover the ominous future that awaits them and the cruel fate that will not allow them to reach maturity or find love or fulfillment. While they accept their fate as predestined, the film evokes their growing emotional awareness as they resist and try to find a path to redemption. The film, which can be heavy at time, will be a challenge to market, but is a thought-provoking "what if" look at a technological utopia all to ready to sacrifice human emotion for what it terms "progress".

In a much more comedic vein, IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, by the directorial team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (HALF NELSON, SUGAR), also traces the growth of its lead character, a troubled teen who has voluntarily admitted himself to a mental ward. Consumed with thoughts of suicide and feeling beleagured by the demands of his parents and teachers, Craig (played with great flair by up-and-coming actor Keir Gilchrist) rides his bicycle to the local mental hospital in his native New York, getting assigned to an adult ward where he is suddenly in the midst of people who are dangerously unstable. He is swept into the realities of these troubled folk, especially a crafty long-time resident, played by the comic actor Zach Galifianakis (THE HANGOVER). Adapted from a best-selling autobiography by Ned Vizzini, the film successfully enters the head of its young protagonist, showing how he slowly edges away from his troubles to a stronger sense of his needs and desires. Once he is able to free himself from the expectations of others, he can truly become his own person. This journey is a more hopeful one, but clearly living in the shadows of others' expectations provides a certain (enforced) kind of innocence that be discarded to move forward.

In way more dramatic and wrenching terms, that is also the journey of Aron Rolston, a cocky "extreme sports" enthusiast who must face a daunting decision when he becomes entrapped in a remote canyon in the mountains of Utah. Based on a true story, the young man (in a tour-de-force performance by James Franco that is certain to be remembered at awards season) must eventually cut off his own hand in order to free himself from his enforced imprisonment. This is, to be sure, a wrenching sequence that necessitated medics being called in to treat a few viewers when the film was screened last week at the Telluride Film Festival (I admit to closing my eyes myself).

Director Danny Boyle (last year's Oscar winner for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) employs all his considerable visual gifts to bring audiences into the heart of this compelling story of courage and survival. Almost a one-man show, 95% of the film is strictly James Franco, becoming desperate, weak and hallucinatory. The film enters his feverish head, offering snapshots of his family life, his encounter with two female climbers just prior to the incident, and his growing awareness that his independent demeanor (he has not told anyone where he is) may have sealed his fate. The growing awareness of how he has kept family, friends and co-workers at a distance in a macho brio of self-assuredness makes this as much an emotional journey as a compelling tale of survival. Full of visual invention that exhibits a kinetic sense of cinema and complimented by a superb score by fellow Oscar winner A.R. Rahman (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), this is destined to be one of the most talked about films of the year.

As we all journey from the innocence of our youth to confront the often harsh realities of maturity, these films resonate with a sense that the greatest truths are often the ones most hardest won. And that is a great lesson indeed........

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