For Nicole Dorsey, director and writer of stylistic, psychological drama Black Conflux, creating of the film’s main character, Jackie, was about relaying her own experiences as a teenager.
“All I wanted as a young person growing up was to see some sort of version of myself on screen,” said Dorsey. “I hope that teenage girls can look at Jackie and just know that they’re not alone … That you’re going through something that we all have a version of.”
The coming-of-age film, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, centres around the lives of Jackie and Dennis, played by Ella Ballentine and Ryan McDonald. Jackie is a promising high school student determined to avoid becoming like her convict mother. She skips school, parties and hitchhikes, trying to navigate her friendships and romantic relationships.
“There’s this balance where you are finding power in your sexuality and how to use that and that feels fun and exciting, but you’re also still young and naive and that can be traumatizing when that attention doesn’t turn out to be how you picture it in your mind.”
As the film industry makes way for female-led projects in front of and behind the camera, Canadian directors whose works are featured at TIFF this year are using the opportunity to tell stories through complex characters who aren’t necessarily likable, and portray relationships that aren’t reduced to tropes or stereotypes.
Whether it be the good, the complicated or the volatile, filmmakers like Dorsey say they want to see themselves and their relationships on screen.
The inspiration for Sanja Zivkovic’s debut feature Easy Land stemmed from her own experience as an immigrant, she said.
The movie follows Jasna, an architect from Serbia played by Underground star Mirjana Jokovic, whose mental illness puts a strain on her relationship with her daughter Nina, played by The Handmaid’s Tale actress Nina Kiri, as they struggle to navigate obstacles facing newcomers to Canada.
Jasna has been traumatized by what she witnessed in Serbia, and the after-effects are exacerbated by the menial jobs she must take to pay the rent.
“I spent a lot of time with my mom and it made me think about the past and how hard it was,” said Zivkovic, who came to Canada from Serbia in 1994 during the war in the former Yugoslavia. “It was hard for everyone in my family but specifically for her as a woman who came to Canada barely speaking the language and having to rebuild her own life.”
When it came to creating the relationship between Nina and Jasna, Zivkovic said it was important to her to create characters that were dependent on each other. Zivkovic described both characters as outspoken women who cannot express themselves outside their small apartment, but “at home is when everything comes to a climax.”
“They’re trying really hard not to hurt each other and trying really hard to play as if it’s not that big of a deal but, of course, they’re both suffering inside and that comes to a surface at certain points in the film,” she said.
Amy Jo Johnson’s second feature, Tammy’s Always Dying, which stars Felicity Huffman and Anastasia Phillips, also elicits a complicated mother-daughter relationship in a dark comedy that depicts Kathy’s attempt to care for her alcoholic mother, Tammy, who’s been diagnosed with cancer.
“There is some obscure humour and I feel like that’s the way I tackle life and look at life — to find the humour within the sadness,” she said.
When asked about her interest in the script, written by Joanne Sarazen, Johnson said it reminded her of her own relationship with her parents.
Watching her mother die from cancer 20 years ago, Johnson said she saw some of herself in Kathy’s character, which is part of what made the script “jump right off the page.”
“The way Joanne wrote the film — with such absurd humour to break through and get through the drama that is within these heavy subjects is what I really, really identified with and grabbed onto as the filmmaker.”
Achieving gender parity has become a priority for many Canadian film institutions, including TIFF, which last year pledged a commitment to the 50/50 by 2020 initiative.
Out of the 26 Canadian features slated as part of the festival’s lineup, almost 50 per cent are directed by women.
Telefilm has also committed to backing female-led projects, recently announcing that 59 per cent of its production funding in the last fiscal year went to projects featuring at least one woman as a lead producer, director or writer.
One of those projects touted by Telefilm was Semi Chellas’ American Woman, which premiers at TIFF next week.
Drawing on Susan Choi’s novel, the film follows Jenny, played by Hong Chau, a dedicated activist who has been living underground for years who is tasked with keeping a group of radicals off the grid while they write a book. Jenny develops a relationship with Pauline, as played by Sarah Gadon, a Patty Hearst-like heiress who has been radicalized by her captors.
“What does transpire between them? Is it friendship? Is it love? Is it real? Is it brainwashing? Is all love brainwashing?” Chellas said. “Jenny’s perspective is the centre of the movie, her idea of what it is, but she keeps revising her understanding of how she feels about Pauline and what her responsibility is to that relationship.”
Chellas wanted her film to be the opposite of what she sees as a “very glib screenwriting trope” in movies, which is the idea that people can change.
“My experience is people very rarely change radically,” said Chellas. “People very rarely change their minds. People very rarely change their habits.”
Chellas said she approached the characters’ relationship by developing it between the lines. Certain scenes would first be taped with lines from the script, and then would slowly be re-enacted using fewer and fewer lines.
“So much of what they’re communicating to each other necessarily is playing at the level where other people can’t hear it,” said Chellas.
Tammy’s Always Dying
Tammy MacDonald (Felicity Huffman) is a mess. Alcoholic, unemployed, a compulsive shoplifter, and near the end of every month, like clockwork, she tries to jump off the bridge near her home. Tammy’s daughter Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) tries her best to keep her grounded and safe, but as anyone who has had to deal with a troubled friend or family member can attest, that can become an increasingly difficult burden to bear (especially when, as is the case with Tammy and Catherine, their relationship was never healthy to begin with). Then Tammy is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and it all gets worse.
Amy Jo Johnson’s sophomore feature (following The Space Between in 2017) is an at times pitch black comedy-drama about grief and trauma and trying to do right by yourself and your family. Catherine tries to have a life of her own when she’s not dealing with her mother: she works at the local bar, has sex with a (married) friend, and occasionally drives to Toronto to role play being an exotic tourist at a hotel bar. She also has an affinity for trashy local TV, especially a talk show where the host speaks to his guests about their family trauma, with a focus on people who have lost abusive parents. Tammy, for her part, is constantly caught between trying to improve herself and succumbing to her worst impulses (best demonstrated in a scene that begins with her deciding to clean up the house and ends with her stealing the cash Catherine had hidden away in her dresser drawer). Felicity Huffman may be something of a liability for the movie from a PR standpoint right now, but as an actress she’s still first rate. There’s no vanity or ostentatiousness in her performance, either before or after the character has been diagnosed with cancer.
Matching her beat for beat is Anastasia Phillips (Skins, Reign) who smartly refuses to play her part for sympathy. Catherine might be better than her mother, but that doesn’t mean she is a nice person. When Phillips and Huffman play off of each other, it rings almost uncomfortably true. You can feel the history between them, and in scenes where Tammy makes a joke to Catherine about something in their past only for Catherine to reveal that it was a source of emotional pain for it, the pain feels real and you squirm in your seat because you don’t know if you are supposed to laugh or cry.
The tonal balancing act Amy Jo Johnson accomplishes here is really quite remarkable… any movie that is able to successfully pull off a scene where a character looks on in horror when they’re told that the cancer treatments are doing their job unusually well is something to be commended. Even the scenes satiric scenes involving the TV show (with such taglines as “Your Trauma Can Have Value!”) hit their marks not because of how outrageous they seem, but because they ring entirely true. What’s it like for people to make small talk backstage when they’re about to reveal their traumas to a live studio audience? What happens when an interviewee isn’t able to cry on cue, and the producers have to find other avenues to make the story compelling? These are things that obviously have to be part of these shows, but how often do we really think about them?
There are lots of comedies about death, and lots of stories where illnesses are used as vehicles to explore family dysfunction. But rarely are they done as sensitively as in Tammy’s Always Dying.
Kevin’s 2019 TIFF ranking
- Knives Out
- The Personal History of David Copperfield
- Blood Quantum
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
- Tammy’s Always Dying
- Bombay Rose
- Bring Me Home
- Hearts and Bones
This is major: For the first time in Toronto International Film Festival history, half of the gala presentations (a.k.a. the swankiest red carpet premieres attended by stars like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper) are directed by women. That prestigious group includes the world premieres of two biopics about inspiring women (a Harriet Tubman film, Harriet, and a Marie Curie movie, Radioactive), the first screenings of widely anticipated movies like the star-studded Hustlers (hi, J.Lo and Constance Wu!) and the Mister Rogers film A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.
Here are 10 of the buzziest films directed by women, including a handful by Canadians, coming to TIFF 2019:
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (best known for the 1997 film Eve’s Bayou) and co-written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard of Ali fame, this Harriet Tubman biopic stars Tony Award-winning Broadway actress and Widows standout Cynthia Erivo as the abolitionist hero. The film, co-starring musician Janelle Monáe, follows Tubman’s life from her own escape from slavery through her journey leading hundreds of other enslaved Black people through the Underground Railroad to freedom. TIFF is often a predictor for the films that go on to dazzle during awards season and this moving biopic is poised to be an Oscar shoo-in.
How to Build a Girl
Beanie Feldstein is having a moment. After stealing scenes in 2018’s Ladybird and leading the beloved Olivia Wilde-directed Booksmart, the actress stars in the film adaptation of British author Caitlin Moran’s popular 2014 semi-biographical novel. The coming-of-age comedy charts 16-year-old Johanna Morrigan’s rise from geeky, endearing teen to infamous music critic in 1990s England (expect excellent style and musical throwbacks). How to Build a Girl co-stars Chris O’Dowd and Emma Thompson and was directed by Coky Giedroyc, an English director best known for her work on Women Talking Dirty (which, incidentally, had its world premiere at TIFF in 2001).
Hustlers is so jam-packed with big and buzzy names, it’s hard to keep track. With a cast that includes living legend Jennifer Lopez and Crazy Rich Asians leading lady Constance Wu, along with Keke Palmer, Fiona Stiles, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B and Lizzo (!), it’s easy to understand why the movie attracted so much buzz before the first trailer had even dropped. Directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for her work on the indie films Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the film was inspired by a New York Magazine story about a group of former strip-club employees who scam their Wall Street clients.
There’s Something in the Water
Oscar-nominated Canadian actor and activist Ellen Page co-directed
this documentary about environmental racism in her home province of Nova
Scotia alongside Ian Daniel, her co-host from the Vice docuseries Gaycation.
The documentary that TIFF calls “urgent” was inspired by Dr. Ingrid
Waldron’s book by the same name that “examines the legacy of
environmental racism and its health impacts in Indigenous and Black
communities in Canada, using Nova Scotia as a case study, and the
grassroots resistance activities by Indigenous and Black communities
against the pollution and poisoning of their communities.” There’s Something in the Water shines a spotlight on the communities disproportionately impacted by Nova Scotia’s most pressing environmental crises.
Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger
Legendary Abenaki filmmaker and activist Alanis Obamsawin’s 53rd film
documents the heart-wrenching story of Jordan River Anderson, a young
boy from the Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba who suffered from a
rare muscle disorder known as Carey-Fineman-Ziter syndrome. He died in
2005 after being forced to spend all five years of his life in hospital
while the federal and provincial governments fought over which was
responsible for his care. The film details the hard-fought struggle of
Indigenous activists to urge the Canadian government to enforce
“Jordan’s Principle,” the “promise that no First Nations children would
experience inequitable access to government-funded services again.”
Alberta-raised Semi Chellas directs this fictionalized reimagining of
the infamous Patty Hearst affair, in which the privileged granddaughter
of a wealthy media magnate (played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon) is
kidnapped by a group of radical political activists. Actress Hong Chau
(a standout in the quirky 2017 Matt Damon film, Downsizing)
stars as 25-year-old former radical Jenny Shimada, who helps care for a
group of American fugitives, including the now-radicalized heiress who
is famous for embracing her captors’ ideology. This is Chellas’s
directorial debut; previously, she earned producer credits on the
popular TV series Mad Men and The Romanoffs.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller, who directed Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the
film for which Melissa McCarthy earned an Oscar nod, directs this
intimate look inside journalist Tom Junod’s life-changing friendship
with iconic television personality, Mister Rogers. Another screen
icon—Tom Hanks—stars as the beloved Fred Rogers whose enduring kindness,
ability to talk to children and not at them, and
signature cardigans (is Mister Rogers an accidental style icon?
Absolutely) have been adored by youngsters around the world for decades.
Matthew Rhys of The Americans stars as the cynical journalist tasked with profiling Rogers for Esquire magazine.
Rosamund Pike stars as scientist Marie Curie in this biopic directed
by Iranian-born filmmaker Marjane Satrapi. Based on Lauren Redniss’s
graphic novel by the same name, the film tells the story of the two-time
Nobel Prize–winning scientist, highlighting the medical discoveries she
made with her husband, Pierre, played by Sam Riley. Curie still holds
the honour of being the only person to ever win the Nobel Prize in two
different fields, physics and chemistry, but her story is as relevant
today as it was 100 years ago: as a female scientist, she had to fight
In Clemency, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, a death row prison warden played by Academy Award nominee Alfre Woodard struggles with the emotional repercussions of her job following years of executions. The drama won a prestigious Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with critics praising Woodard’s nuanced performance as “brilliant” and “heartbreaking.” Nigerian-born Chukka’s previous directorial credits include several short films and the 2012 feature alaskaLand about an estranged Nigerian-American brother and sister who reconnect in their hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Tammy’s Always Dying
This second directorial effort from Canadian actress Amy Jo Johnson—yes, from the 2000s TV series Felicity and the police drama Flashpoint—looks at the complicated relationship of ailing alcoholic Tammy (Felicity Huffman) and her long-suffering daughter Kathy (Anastasia Phillips), who has to move back in with her mother to care for her when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Kathy’s only solace in this dark comedy comes when she’s chosen to be a guest on a tawdry talk show.