According to TIFF, the Discovery programme is "a showcase for innovative new filmmakers." This is the section where you might find the next big director (or not) and have the privilege of saying that you were there at the beginning of their career. Here's my take on the few I've seen so far...
Girlfriend, Justin Lerner, (Discovery)
Don’t go see this film because you heard that it is the first American film to cast an actor with Down syndrome in a starring role; Girlfriend is not a gimmick. Set in a small Massachusetts town, the film is the story of Evan (Ben Sneider) a young many with Down syndrome, who lives with his mother and works with her at a café. The love of Evan’s life is Candy (Shannon Woodward), a young, single mother who can’t seem to shake her ex-boyfriend, Russ (Jackson Rathbone). Evan, Candy, and Russ all went to school together, where Candy and Russ were a known couple. With Russ no longer with Candy, Evan desperately wants Candy to be his girlfriend. When he comes into some unexpected funds, he shares it with Candy so she can pay off some of her bills. To the romantic Evan, taking care of Candy means he is her boyfriend because that’s what boyfriends are supposed to do.
I absolutely loved Shannon Woodward in her role as Candy, the conflicted young mother, who is trying to take care of her child and keep a roof over her head. That her character, Candy, cannot resist the good-for-nothing, Russ, is understandable given actor Jackson Rathbone’s dirty, bad boy sexuality. The subtle expressions on her face portray her conflicted emotions towards Evan and earned my own divergent love/hate towards her character. I empathized with her ability to make me understand why she takes the money from the lovelorn Evan, but I also hated her for continuing to do so even when she knows that Evan wants a full relationship with her.
As Evan, Evan Sneider brings to the screen a fully realized character, who just happens to have Down syndrome. Evan is a man in love, and his earnest wooing of Candy and his concern for her son, makes him no different than any other prospective boyfriend, in his desire to care for her. What adds to dramatic interest to the film is the fact that Evan and Candy are not at the same intellectual level or emotional level. Candy’s intellect far exceeds Evan’s but she is not mature enough to make wise decisions about her life. She is also not emotionally stable enough to cut her ex-boyfriend out of her life or to make it fundamentally clear to Evan that she cannot be his girlfriend. For his part, Evan knows how to be a boyfriend from watching soap-operas, this false way of looking at life, added to his high school crush on Candy prevents him from really grasping the fact that they cannot be a couple.
Writer/director, Jason Lerner falls into the trap of many first-time feature directors and adds one too many plot points to his film. Perhaps having made short films he didn’t trust that he had enough of a story to hold the audience. Who knows? By throwing in a couple of unnecessary scenes towards the end of the film, he undermines his own work. Still, Girlfriend is worth a watch because most of the script does work, and for what actress Shannon Wodward’s brings to the screen.
Norberto’s Deadline/ Norberto Apenas Tarde, Daniel Hendler, (Discovery)
Daniel Hendler is a well-known actor in Uruguay, but I don’t know what to make of his Norberto’s Deadline, his screenwriting and directorial debut. There is nothing wrong with the story of a sad-sack married man who takes a job at a real estate agency after being fired from his airline job. We can only guess why Norberto was fired—his timidity, perhaps? When his real estate colleague suggests that Norberto needs some assertiveness training, Norberto decides that acting would be a way in which to overcome his shyness. As his he falls deeper into the world of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”, Norberto makes new friends with the young theatre-student cast, and gains independence even as he loses his wife.
I couldn’t connect emotionally with Norberto, so I have no passionate feelings towards this film. It’s not bad enough to hate, but I have no desire to see this film again, either. I think actor, Fernando Amaral was too unemotional for me. His sloppy clothes and slumped shoulders strike the right note for the character, but he is lacking the accompanying emotions in his eyes, that quality that American actor, Paul Giamati is so good at communicating when he plays characters that are just outside the social norm. A shrug and a “next!” is what I thought after seeing this film.
Pinoy Sunday, Ho Wi Ding, (Discovery)
Stories about migrant workers are usually heavy dramas, focusing on the hardship and exploitative nature of such contracts, but in this story comedy is the genre used to tell the familiar tale. Through the direction if Ho Wi Ding and lens of cinematographer, Jake Pollock, we see the daily life of two Filipino workers, Manuel (Epy Quizon) and Dado (Bayani Agbayani) living in Taipei. They work in a bicycle factory with strict rules, and live in the factory-owed dormitory. That life is not easy for the workers in Taiwan is seen from the very beginning of the film where Dada meets a Filipino in handcuffs on his way back to the Philippines; another Filipino is being sought for deportation, and they are living in a country where they don’t speak the language fluently and are seen as outsiders.
Manuel is a ladies man who falls in love at the drop of a hat; Dada is a married man who staves off loneliness by forming a relationship with a Filipina who works as a personal care attendant for an elderly Chinese woman. The two men live for Sundays where they go to church and meet and mingle with other Filipinos. They also have a dream of decorating their dorm so that it feels like a real home, instead of temporary, sterile digs. One Sunday afternoon, they find a red sofa abandoned in front of a building and it seems as if their dreams have come true. Manuel and Dada spend the rest of their Sunday trying to get the sofa back to their dormitory by curfew. Run ins with other characters, the Taipei cityscape (including the stunning 101 Taipei building), and the blaring political announcements and posters promising “change” are the backdrop to this buddy road movie where a red sofa is the embodiment of a longing for “home”. Music by Yao Jen Tsai rounds out this wonderful comedy that charms and delights even as it makes us think about the loneliness of the migrant worker.
Pinoy Sunday is Ho Wi Ding’s first feature film and I am hopeful that his next film will be as well constructed and visually engaging.
Wasted on the Young, Ben C. Lucas, (Discovery)
The age-old story about high school cliques, insiders and outsiders is taken to a higher level than usual with today’s social networking, camera phones, and computer technology. Teenage emotions are ramped to a level that hasn’t been seen in history, and when a teenage girl wakes up on a beach after a party with no knowledge of how she got there, rumours about her and the swim team spread like wildfire at an exclusive boarding school and on social networking sites. What really happened to her? Was the swim team captain, who has total control of the student body, involved in anyway, and does it matter to the rest of the students? What will the swim captain’s un-cool stepbrother, who had a crush on the girl, do about what happened?
The absence of adult authority and presence in the film serves as a warning to society, and parents, guardians and teachers, especially, of the dangers we all face in this new age of technology in the hands of an emotionally immature teens. The film is also a warning to teens that they have the power in their hands to bow to peer pressure or take a stance against its most negative impact.
Wasted on the Young is a good looking film with interesting visuals that add to the technology driven world of the film. Cinematographer, Dan Freene does a stellar job of lighting the glass house in which the stepbrothers lives (sans parents who are travelling) as well as the school’s interiors and exteriors. Alex Russell, who plays the evil swim team captain with such brilliant sang-froid, has a career ahead of him after this film. The camera loves his dimpled, chiselled good looks, and his character’s few moments of vulnerability shows that Russell is more than capable of being a cookie-cutter villain.
I really wanted to like this twenty-first century take on disaffected youth, but first time feature director, Ben C. Lucas made it really hard for me to do so. The way he and editor, Leanne Cole chose to arrange scenes undermine a good story, and made it a frustrating watch for me. Anyone who has seen Gus Van Sant’s Elephant will make automatic comparisons with Wasted on the Young. Perhaps if, Lucas had as much experience as Van Sant, he wouldn’t have telegraphed plot elements too early in the film, and would have eliminated his use of flashbacks altogether. If my criticisms seem harsh it’s because I saw a good film that should have been a great film. As much as I hated the inept editing of this timely story, I clearly see that Ben C. Lucas is definitely one to watch.
What will you see at TIFF 2010?