So the festival is almost over, and many of us are going home with our minds unblown. A couple of days ago, I saluted the momentary decline in so-called Oscar bait — no Gravity and no 12 Years a Slave. But that also means there’s been no Gravity and no 12 Years a Slave — not even a Silver Linings Playbook or, gulp, Slumdog Millionaire. Even if they weren’t being promoted as award-worthy, they’d still be films you very much wanted to see.
New movies by David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alejandro González Iñárritu have skipped Toronto on their way to the New York Film Festival, which starts in a couple of weeks. But setting aside the usual holdovers from Cannes, this year Toronto has also seen a dearth of a different sort of high-profile movie: nothing by Michael Haneke or Claire Denis or Lucrecia Martel or Fatih Akin or Carlos Reygadas — modestly budgeted, major works of art, movies that take you somewhere you’ve never been, somewhere that surprises you, movies that can cleave an audience in half or unite people in either bliss or enlightened contempt.
The German director Christian Petzold has a new movie here — a Holocaust drama called Phoenix — that fits the bill. I keep missing it. But people are talking about it, as a film they find either exhilarating or exasperatingly illogical. That’s the ticket. This sort of movie, with a director’s strong point of view, is the lifeblood of a festival, even one with as densely packed a slate as Toronto. Without many strong entries from both classes of movie, this place can feel hollow as a moviegoing experience. It’s not the festival’s fault, but a weak year does remind you how high the bar’s been raised.
In the meantime, you have to see something. So this morning I caught Beyond the Lights, a romantic drama about Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an ascendant biracial pop star from working-class England, and the aspiring black politician, Kaz (Nate Parker), who, by day (and sometimes by night), works as an LAPD officer. The presentation is, on its surface, absurd, but its worry about what fame does to women is legitimate.
Depressed by the demands of fame, Noni pushes herself off a hotel balcony. Kaz is there to grab her hand and haul her up from death. “I see you,” he tells Noni, understanding that her concern is that no one knows the real her. Soon, her stage mother (Minnie Driver) has them both lying to a skeptical press that the incident was a drunken accident. (Noni’s desperately anticipated debut album is weeks away from release!) Noni asks Kaz to be her one-man security detail. Yes, it’s also The Bodyguard, or not unlike it.
But instead of a serial-killer plot, director Gina Prince-Bythewood has Noni stalked by the media and tormented by her corrosive unhappiness with what the marketplace (and her mommy) wants her to be: Ciara. It’s a good swap. Prince-Bythewood is allowed to get into matters of hypersexuality and music-biz chauvinism. The issues of race that really weren’t an issue in The Bodyguard get an Obama-era treatment. Noni’s boyfriend is a white American rapper (MGK) who gets aggressive with her during a live performance at the BET Awards. Cue a kerfuffle that’s more Source Awards, but still. Meanwhile, Kaz’s father (Danny Glover) worries that this scantily clad scandal magnet “isn’t First Lady material.”
But the movie doesn’t want to over-racialize the identity politics. Generically, it’s just a tale of being who you are, which in Noni’s case isn’t a pinup like Ciara. It’s a singer-songwriter like Corinne Bailey Rae. When this movie comes out in November, you can see the transformation for yourself. The politics for Prince-Bythewood amount to making a very commercial love story between two black people that isn’t about how black they are. This was also true of her best-known film, Love & Basketball. She can find the right tone of sweetness and honesty between actors. Her lovers here push each other to be their most authentic selves.
I don’t know why Noni couldn’t just perform the songs she wrote years ago and stuffed in a shoe box. Maybe she suspected her mother couldn’t imagine a world that would want to hear a beautiful black woman make such allegedly confessional music. Noni clearly feels pimped out and has come to believe, with her mother’s approval, that it’s best to behave accordingly. The movie saves only a little drama for Noni’s mama. Otherwise, Prince-Bythewood doesn’t explore any of the psychological stuff. The use of two Nina Simone songs is meant to signify artistic and racial truth the way a Sex Pistols or Ramones T-shirt worn by a white guy is meant to in other movies.
You can certainly imagine the lurid critique of 21st-century pop stardom that a director like David Lynch might perform. Prince-Bythewood might have anticipated that expectation. Instead, she heavily concentrates on how good Parker and Mbatha-Raw are together. They’re not the strongest actors. They do have a strongish presence, though, especially Parker — he looks like the Denzel Washington of 28 years ago, but a version whose default expression is the one people make upon seeing a witheringly sick dunk. These two manage to get away together for about 15 minutes of screen time, and their chemistry transforms the rest of the movie. They start out in The Bodyguard and wind up in Roman Holiday.
The first sequence in Beyond the Lights shows Noni’s white mother taking her to a black hairdresser, desperate to find a solution for her daughter’s curls. I went from that to Kevin Costner dealing with the same problem in the opening minutes of Mike Binder’s Black and White. This is a tiresome interracial custody dramedy in which white non-guilt righteously dukes it out with black melodrama. It’s like Tyler Perry’s Crash.
Costner plays a freshly widowed, high-powered, frequently drunk Los Angeles attorney whose white daughter gave birth to a black girl and then died minutes later — nominally of a medical condition, but really of shame. (She hid the pregnancy from her loving parents.) Obviously, the baby’s black father (André Holland) is a crack addict who’s been in and out of prison. Costner’s wife (Jennifer Ehle) has died when the movie opens, and the infant’s paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer), who was friends with Costner’s wife, hires her high-powered attorney brother (Anthony Mackie) to sue for custody.
Just as a piece of storytelling, the movie’s preposterous. There’s absolutely no reason for this case to stay in a courtroom — even though the uncredited actress playing that judge nearly pockets the film. How can either lawyer’s firm afford to devote its top talent to this suit? When the judge asks why joint custody is out of the question, the racial answer is extralegal, and the legal answer is murky. The fact of Costner’s alcoholism is a screenwriting device meant to morally balance the father’s drug addiction. Who’s falling for that? It’s the criminal-justice equivalent of calling Zima beer.
Whenever the film ought be thinking about class and racial perception and mixed-raced extended families, it gives Costner dreams of the dead wife and makes the crackhead father do the damnedest things instead. The whole movie exists for a speech Costner gives under cross-examination. It’s remarkable for its candor about noticing race versus being a racist and for Costner’s emotional delivery. He’s reached a point in his stardom at which he makes only ridiculous films in which he never seems at all ridiculous. Otherwise, Binder (The Upside of Anger, HBO’s The Mind of the Married Man) has no idea how or what to write for any character other than Costner’s. It’s as if — like Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed Crash — he’s been holding on to those feelings for decades and finally found a contraption to build around them.
Anyone else in this movie could have delivered that speech or one similar. But I do like that, once forced into thinking about race, Costner’s character has actual thoughts. The black characters just believe that the girl should be with them as a matter of philosophy the screenwriting doesn’t allow them to argue. Spencer gets to be a ham with a part that’s part savvy, part nincompoop. Binder puts her character’s big home right next to a drug den you suspect Spencer would have had shut down years ago. Her role has none of the wisdom or aplomb or decorum you’d expect from a middle-class woman who owns six businesses and perfumes her South Los Angeles neighborhood with generosity — or from Spencer. Her son is supposed to be a blind spot; you just don’t believe this actress would be a mother this blind. That sort of willful cluelessness is the only thing Binder has in common with her.
I couldn’t allow that to be my last film at this festival. So I found something like the kind of film that’s been missing here: something with life, ideas, and fully realized human beings. Formally, Laurent Cantet’s Return to Ithaca is pretty simple. It’s five middle-aged Cuban friends spending the evening together on the roof of one man’s apartment building. They dance and laugh at first. But the conversations head into their resentment of the ways in which the Castro government has exploited their sense of national hope — embittered and terrified them, ruining their families and careers and stability.
The title is from Homer’s Odyssey. Here it refers to the decade that one of the friends, a writer named Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez), spent out of the country. To the surprise and resentment of everyone else, he’s come home to stay. The film builds to his explanation for departing so abruptly, and it is moving. So are the airings of hard feelings and pungent memories. The revolution’s damage is generations deep. The film dramatizes its characters’ hourly wrestling with what it costs both to remain in the country and to flee from it.
Cantet composed the script with the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes, and the Frenchman’s style is the same fly-on-the-wall approach he used for his most acclaimed movie, 2008’s public-education drama The Class. He fosters this seamless improvisatory air that takes you from eavesdropping to absorption. One of the thrills of watching these actors together is that you feel 40 years of friendship among them, along with all the attendant, particularly Cuban complexities of remaining close. Even the decision to come to a dinner party armed with gifts can turn political. I’d never seen any of these actors before. But I wanted to thank each of them for baring a part of their souls.