Narcissistic men and the women who put up with their shit: Week 1 of CIFF

Maudie (Dir. Aisling Walsh)

I had really high hopes going into Maudie. Not only did it feature a fascinating female protagonist, but it was helmed by a female director, screenwriter and producer, a rarity by Hollywood standards. I was expecting the film to be the feminist-victory of the festival; however, I left feeling uneasy and, frankly, disappointed. Let me start off by saying this: visually, the film was exceptional. When making a film about a folk artist who draws inspiration from the world around her, you better make sure that the audience can catch even a glimpse of what the artist sees, and Walsh certainly did that. And as far as the films lead, Sally Hawkins, is concerned, her Oscar-worthy portrayal of Maude Lewis is sure to go down as a career-best performance. Like I said, Maudie had all the ingredients to be an incredible work of Canadian cinema, but at its core, it’s a very problematic film.

The films centre focus isn’t really Maud herself, but rather the relationship between her and her husband, Everett.  However, issues quickly arise when we find out, fairly early on, her husband is extremely abusive. While watching the film you can see him hit her, berate her, control her, and almost rape her. And while the portrayal of this abuse isn’t a problem in itself (the film is biographical after all), the issue falls in that the film is being lauded as a love story. Throughout the film, Maud is subject to countless abuse from her husband, but it is presented under the guise of “It’s the 1940’s! Everyone hits their wives!” and “He just has a gruff exterior! He cried when she died, so that means he really must love her!” The film seeks to normalize the abuse, in hopes that we can look past it, and view the film as the love story it is marketed to be. We can’t erase this abuse from a narrative. The fact is, that was her life, and her relationship with her husband is a big part of her story.  However, choosing to focus on the relationship between her and her husband and presenting the abusive relationship as a love story, just isn’t something I’m going to buy. Maud Lewis is an incredible woman. She suffered through poverty, disability, loss, and abuse, yet still managed to see the world with an innocence and beauty that the rest of us, even in less adverse circumstances, couldn’t muster. And it was this innocence and beauty that she was able to pour into her paintings, making her one of Canada’s most renowned folk artists. Like I said, Maudie had the makings to be an exceptional film, all of the pieces were there. Exceptional visuals, strong performances, and a strong female protagonist that screenwriters can only dream of. But, sadly, they took it in the wrong direction, and for that, I can’t give Maudie the praise that I hoped I could.

 

Operator (Dir. Logan Kibens)

Ever since the full festival lineup was released, Operator was on my radar.  I’ve always been a fan of Martin Starr (starting at, but expanding well beyond, Freaks and Geeks), so I was excited and intrigued to see him take on a lead role. My excitement was only amplified when I found out that Starr himself would be attending the screening (I can gladly confirm that, yes, he’s just as funny in person).

I ended up being pleasantly surprised by Operator. Going in I had moderate expectations, and they were far exceeded. I was even more pleasantly surprised when I found out that this was director Logan Kibens first feature film, I’d even go so far as to say I’m amazed. Had I not known this was her first feature, I never would have guessed. The film presented itself with the polish and style equivalent to that of a seasoned director, and although occasionally some visual elements strayed from the films overall aesthetic, I would say that Logan Kibens is definitely a director you want to watch.  The films biggest draw, however, is the uniqueness of the narratives premise.  Computer programmer, Joe (Starr), uses his wife, Emily (Mae Whitman)’s, voice to create an interactive voice response (IVR) for a healthcare company. Slowly, Joe begins to replace his wife with the program, and as a result the stability of their marriage is threatened. Some might compare the films premise to that of Spike Jonze’s Her, but the main difference here is that the film is set in present day Chicago as opposed to futuristic setting of Her, making Operator seem like less of a sci-fi wonder, and more of a portrait of a modern day-relationship impeded by technology. And while Starr and Whitman’s performances alone don’t stand out, their undeniable chemistry will make you believe their relationship, and make their struggles hit home that much harder.

 

Hunky Dory (Michael Curtis Johnson)

I’m only halfway through CIFF, but I think I will be hard pressed to find I film I like as much as Hunky Dory. Seriously, I loved this film and you will too. Hunky Dory is the story of a sexually fluid, glam-rock-wannabe, dive-bar-drag-queen, Sidney (Tomas Pais), who is forced to assume his fatherly duties when his ex suddenly skips town, leaving their son Georgie (Edouard Holdener) in his care. This movie is astounding for so many reasons, so let me count the ways.

First, the narrative is unlike any you’ve seen before. There are hundreds of thousands of films out there, so I place a high value on a film’s ability to be different, and Hunky Dory does just that. A story about the relationship between a father and son isn’t a new concept, but writer/director Michael Curtis Johnson manages to take it in a completely different direction, mostly in part to the films protagonist, Sidney. Throughout the film, Sidney doesn’t only deal with the pressures and responsibility of fatherhood, but is constantly at war with every aspect of his identity, from his sexuality, to his career, to his narcissistic tendencies. And while, up until this point, Sidney has been content to move fluidly through all these things, he begins to worry about the impact they may be having on his son, and his son’s perception of him. This intertwining of family and identity are what make Hunky Dory standout, and one of this years must-see films.

Second, I have to commend Michael Curtis Johnson. Another director with a first feature-film showing at the festival, I wouldn’t have known it was his first feature if you hadn’t told me. Most directors tend to get a little carried away when it comes to their first features, going overboard with the visual symbolism. Hunky Dory, however, shines in its simplicity. Every shot is purposeful and deliberate, without being too contrived; a feat that some of the most seasoned directors can’t accomplish. With a character like Sidney, it would be easy to make every element of the film as wild and eccentric as him, but by scaling back, it allows him to shine, and makes his plight feel all the more relatable. Add this to a narrative unlike any other, and you have a powerhouse director in the making.

Finally, this film would not have been as good as it was, if not for Thomas Pais’ spectacular performance as Sidney. This week I have seen amazing performance, after amazing performance, but with Pais in the mix, the competition doesn’t even seem fair. Sidney couldn’t have been an easy character. With a completely fluid identity and unwillingness to be categorized into any specific boxes, most actors would have trouble finding something to grab onto. Pais, however, is able to perfectly embody that fluidity and inability to be compartmentalized, and he makes you love him in the process; quite a feat considering his characters aimless, selfish, and narcissistic tendencies. His performance alone is reason enough to run, not walk, to see this film.

 

Hunter Gatherer (Josh Locy)

There seems to be a bit of a pattern happening in the “New American Cinema” series. For one, first time feature directors are hitting it out of the park, making me excited for this next generation of filmmakers. If these films are any indication, we are in good hands. We can also see a theme emerging in these films, one I’m sure we can all relate to: Narcissistic men and the women who are tired of their shit. We see this between Joe and his wife in Operator, Sidney and his friend Bunny in Hunky Dory, and Ashley and every single woman he meets in Hunter Gatherer.  

Hunter Gatherer is the story of Ashley, who after being released from prison, doesn’t receive the warm welcome he was hoping for. His mother is frustrated with his refusal to grow up, and his girlfriend, Linda, has moved on and is happily in a relationship with a different (read: better) man. His attempts to get his life back together end up in vain, as he refuses to grow up and take responsibility for his actions.

Josh Locy’s directorial debut, Hunter Gatherer mixes comedy and drama in a way that feels simultaneously fresh and familiar. And while most viewers left the theatre frustrated at the films ambiguous ending, it was probably the best part of the film, forgoing traditional narrative structure to leave the audience a little unsure, and a little uncomfortable. Perfect.

And, of course, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Andre Royo’s performance as the films lead, Ashley. Already taking home the Best Actor award at this years SXSW, Royo’s portrayal is another in a series of Oscar-worthy performances seen at the festival this year.

You still have four days to see as many world class films as your eyes and schedule will allow you. So head down to the Globe or Eau Claire Market, grab a ticket, grab some popcorn, turn off your cell phone, and leave reality behind for a little while. I promise, you won’t regret it.