By Anne Brodie
Wildhood is a poignant, bittersweet awakening story of Link, a Mi’kmaw teenager who escapes severe abuse at home and hits the road with his little brother Travis. Writer/director/producer Bretten Hannam’s Two-Spirit odyssey filmed in English and Mi’kmaw starring Phillip Lewitski, Avery Winters Anthony, and Michael Greyeyes details Link’s issues of feeling unloved and unsafe, being shamed for his homosexuality, and his need to reconnect with his absent mother. The boys travel the Annapolis Valley along the Bay of Fundy in Mi’kma’ki, Nova Scotia, and meet Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a competitive pow wow dancer with a truck and engaging personality. They head to where the boys’ mother may live, encountering people, places, and situations along the way, including a “murder house” until the truck breaks down. Rutherford Falls star Michael Greyeyes shows up with a vehicle and empathy and they continue the journey, but first must pick up a cake from a scrappy trans indigenous store clerk. Their adventure is laced with moments of reflection, growing affection between Pasmay and Link and Travis’ understanding. The trio shares their love of the land and sea and develops kinship and meaning with their Mi’kmaw community. A thoughtful, poetic, and transcendent meditation on growing up, finding one’s way, and creating a better life. It takes its time to allow the characters to find what’s real, and a measure of new harmony and joy. TIFF Bell Lightbox and select theatres.
Another life-changing journey. Fear is set in Bulgaria, the poorest member of the European Union, near the border with Turkey. A permanent guard keeps watch to prevent entry by refugees from Asia and Africa; we hear “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” a lot from suspicious citizens. Svetla, (Svetlana Yancheva) a widow, has just lost her teaching job because the school is closing, no children are being born in the region. She’s an independent sort, chopping firewood, hunting for food, remaining aloof from nosy and culturally xenophobic villagers. While hunting squirrels, she encounters a dapper-looking African (Michael Flemming) with a suitcase walking through the woods. Bamba is fleeing Mali for Germany on foot, alone in deep winter, with no coat, no boots. Svetla takes pity on him and lets him sleep on the couch, they don’t understand each other but develop a protector/guest bond. Her hospitality upsets the villagers, her home is attacked, her dog is killed all in the name of “Bulgaria for Bulgarians”. and yet she stands up to them with her rifle and unbreakable spirit. This powerful, surreal, and often funny portrait of Eastern Europe is shot in black and white further underlining the obvious – that Bamba is Black and stands out in this place. Written and directed with style and precise simplicity by Ivaylo Hristov, co-starring Ivan Savov, Stoyan Bochev, Krassimir Dokov and Miroslava Gogovska. Sensitive viewers note that certain words make for uncomfortable moments. Watch for an amazing sight over the end credits. TVOD & Digital
Toronto’s star Pixar animator Domee Shi goes there in her first feature, the first woman to solely direct a Pixar feature and the first Asian woman, Turning Red. Shi’s Oscar-winning animated short Bao (2018) charmed and delighted with its Toronto-centric point of view, CN Tower standing proudly in the background as TTC trams jingle by. Her feature’s also set in the visually appealing, bustling Chinatown. The title refers to 13-year-old protagonist Mei’s response to emotional upheaval, like crushing on a boy, drawing out her feelings in a secret notebook only to have her mother find it. When Mei’s excess of emotion hits the “can’t take it” level, she transforms into a giant red panda and it keeps happening at the most inopportune times – it’s a family thing. And it’s girly stuff, hinting at, well, sex, menstruation, and coming-of-age; we’ve all been there even if our teenage turmoil didn’t result in pandadom. Featuring the voices of Rosalie Chiang as Mei, Sandra Oh as Mei’s mother, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee and James Hong. On Disney+.
Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, and Haley Lu Richardson star in Kogonada’s future sci-fi-drama After Yang in theatres and streaming on Showtime. Jake (Farrell) and his small family live in a minimalist, Japanese-style, and strangely out-of-focus home. He’s a tea master and merchant, his wife Kyra (Smith) has an important job and their toddler Mika relies on Yang, her personal robot and “friend”. Her parents have little time for her; they entrust Yang to be the parents they can’t be. He teaches her about nature, grafting branches to new trees to diversify species, to look outward and he “loves” her in his AI way. He is a branch of their family tree. Thing is, he was purchased used, refurbished, and showing signs of failing. Jake takes him to various repair shops and ultimately to a research centre where his inanimate remains will be studied and put on display. Sarita Choudhury as the chief arranges to buy Yang and his memories. It’s a subtle and deliberate and eerily quiet film about the inevitability of relying on machines with wonderful artistic flourishes like the car’s intricately carved wooden interior and vegetation, the consuming joys of nature, within the tension of the family’s disrepair despite appearances. An artistic adventure bringing together diverse cultural ideas to the central truths of being human. Based on a short story by Alexander Weinstein.
Interestingly, Ryan Reynolds’ The Adam Project on Netflix also plays out parent-child relations in a sci-fi milieu. Time travel exists! we’re told. It’s 2050 and Reynold’s Adam pilots a spaceship when he’s attacked, hurled into a wormhole, and “dies”. Cut to now-ish as Jennifer Garner’s mother prepares to send her son Adam (Walker Scobell) off to school. He’s mischievous, funny, and bright. Alerted by his barking dog, Adam finds Adam the injured pilot in the woodshed. The dog knows him, young Adam sees he’s wearing his father’s watch and is stunned that Adam knows his name. “You’re me, as I once was”. He explains that future machines are tied to the user’s DNA, part of his work with the Adam Project making the idea of time travel real. Zoe Saldana plays his onetime wife who appears exactly when she’s needed to blow away a robot army attacking earth, led by Catherine Keener’s evil genius Laura. The Adams battle to survive incredible odds with an interesting twist on how the future might look and transform us. But of course, it’s mostly about our need to love and be loved without qualification. This is the first movie produced through Reynolds’ self-financed The Group Effort Initiative, which aims to employ people of colour.
HBO / Crave‘s Phoenix Rising, a documentary in two parts detailing actor and anti-domestic abuse activist Evan Rachel Wood’s struggle with years of alleged mental, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse at the hands of Brian Warner a.k.a. Marilyn Manson, debuts March 15. Veteran documentarian Amy Berg follows Wood’s journey of healing, learning, and speaking out, a decade after her escape from Warner. She explains why she didn’t come forward during the relationship or shortly after, why she didn’t identify him until last year, and how he gained control over her through sleep deprivation, starvation, isolation, anti-Semitism and emotional manipulation. She was 18 when they met, he was 37. Woods talks about his obsessions, a troubling experience shooting the music video Heart-Shaped Glasses with him, and other horrifying details too gruesome to explain here. On the positive side, Woods advocated for domestic abuse victims, using her own plight as testimony, and successfully lobbied for The Phoenix Act, which was signed into California State Law in 2019, extending the statute of limitations for domestic violence felonies from three years to five years. This is an upsetting but vital documentary, now complicated by Warner’s denials and lawsuit against her.
Signal: The Movie Cold Case Investigation Unit is the continuation of a hugely popular Japanese TV crime series and it’s a doozy. Hajime Hashimoto directs this razor-sharp police procedural that introduces a sci-fi element and features the theme song Film Out by international K-Pop sensation BTS, written by Jungkook. It’s 2021 and a driver loses control of his limo on a busy highway and crashes. He was carrying the national Intelligence Director, now dead. Police discover poison gas was fed into the grill, reminiscent of political attacks that took place in 2009. Officers Kento Saegusa (Kentaro Sakaguchi) and Takeshi Oyama (Kazuki Kitamura) “meet” again on an old police radio, somehow connecting the lead investigator from 2009 with the investigator on the job in 2021. A suspect is arrested but winds up dead, and a journalist writing a book on the case, with ties to the events of 2009 is in danger. The action ramps up with a touch of mysticism, corruption, and revelation, a time travel meet-up, and a thrilling, extended final chapter. TVOD and Digital March 15.
In honour of International Holocaust Remembrance Day comes I Am Here. Jordy Sank’s documentary on 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal is an inspiring story of survival and love. She’s an amazing woman, having survived one of the most horrific events in human history, Ella says she’s aware of the rise of Nazi signs, alt-right politics, and the new fearlessness of the prejudiced. Ella recently reached out in friendship to a woman who’d posted anti-Semitic remarks online and they corresponded; she made a difference. Her magnetism has won people over throughout her life, helping navigate Nazi Germany, concentration camps, and life following. She reflects on her experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto and Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Bergen-Belsen, that she and her only surviving relative, her aunt, withstood. Those segments are illustrated with simple expressive animation, her memories captured. She’s a joy to watch, spirited, optimistic, despite all, enthusiastic and driven by love. She’s surrounded by a really big extended family who gather from around the world to celebrate her birthday at home in Capetown, South Africa. I Am Here is a beautiful portrait of the resilience of the human spirit and Ella’s unique gift for living. Ella swims every day, uses social media, a modern and fulfilled woman.
BritBox will live stream the 75th Annual British Academy Film Awards Sunday, hosted by Rebel Wilson. Here are the nominees:
and here is what the awards look like
Meanwhile, TIFF Bell Lightbox celebrates International Women’s Day all month long (and every month) with a strong slate of fem-centric films featuring the following series:
Both Sides, Now: The Roles of Natalie Wood – See this screen legend at both her fragile and assertive best, including her Oscar-nominated turn in Splendor in the Grass on 35mm
A Home of One’s Own: Nordic Women Filmmakers – A diverse regional spotlight featuring works from groundbreaker Mai Zetterling, award winner Lone Scherfig, and rising star Iram Haq
Joan Micklin Silver: One More Problem – Underrated gems from this late American New Wave great, who helped launch the careers of Carol Kane and Jeff Goldblum
and In Conversation With… Sarah Polley – the director, actor, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, and author joins us for an in-depth conversation about her new book, Run Towards the Danger. Tickets include a signed copy of the book.
digital TIFF Bell Lightbox also offers specially curated films as part of its Share Her Journey initiative.