2021 Toronto Int. Film Fest Diary: Entry 3 - Thrills & Spills

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 17, 2021

If there's one thing TIFF can be relied upon each year, it's variety. That its status is both a festival and a film market, plenty of titles fill out the varying programmes that make up the official selection. Multiple options means multiple pathways one can take to cater to their interests: pick a country, theme, genre, or any other qualifier of your choosing and you're bound to find a handful of titles satisfying them.

I had no intention of limiting myself when diving into TIFF's lineup (aside from what the festival geo blocked me from or didn't make available digitally), but in going over my viewings from the past several days I noticed several thrillers and genre titles. Maybe it's just a coincidence from whatever TIFF makes available to view on its digital platform on a day-to-day basis, but hey, who am I to complain if I stumble upon a theme?

So thrillers it is, and there's no better way to start with Phillip Noyce's "Lakewood." Starring Naomi Watts, it's largely a one woman show as she finds herself in a crisis while jogging in the forest: calls and texts start pouring in on her phone about a shooting at her son's high school. Watts runs for her life through the forest, making phone calls to find out if her son is safe while trying to find a way into the city.

The use of a school shooting as the basis for a thriller might not be the most sensitive choice, but "Lakewood" is such a howlingly stupid experience it's more inclined to make you laugh at it than get riled up. Screenwriter Chris Sparling runs out of ideas by the end of act one, which leads to plot developments so absurd and contrived I was almost in hysterics. I thought the suggestion that Watts' son might be the shooter was bad enough (an accusation she refuses to entertain until she remembers her son takes Lexapro), but I didn't expect Watts' character to use her internet detective skills to ID the actual shooter and get their phone number. Noyce's direction is grounded, gritty, but forgettable, however, when combined with a story this flat out ridiculous it elevates "Lakewood" to a level of unintentional comedy comparable to "The Room."

A different kind of genre film altogether, Fabrice du Welz's "Inexorable" finds the Belgian director tying his hand at the kind of erotic thriller that might have come out in the 80s or 90s. Author Marcel (Benoit Poelvoorde) and his publisher wife Jeanne (Melanie Doutey) inherit her father's massive countryside estate, and before they're fully moved in the mysterious Gloria (Alba Gaia Bellugi) appears, a young beautiful woman who's a fan of Marcel's latest novel (which shares the same title as the film). The family takes her in to work as a nanny for their daughter, but soon her obsession with Marcel intensifies and puts the entire family at risk.

It's hard to pinpoint what went wrong with du Welz, whose first features "Calvaire" and "Vinyan" showed a lot of promise. His output over the past several years has been lacking, and "Inexorable" is no exception to this trend. Despite a wacky performance from Poelvoorde and some nice cinematography thanks to shooting on Super 16mm, the story is a retread of better films (Gloria's backstory should be easy to predict almost as soon as she shows up). The eccentricities of his earlier work have all but vanished, save for a dance sequence at a birthday party that acts as the film's one weird glimmer of something better that could have been.

Lastly, a genuine surprise among the more unknown quantities in this year's programme. Kate Dolan's "You Are Not My Mother" uses a setup that's all too familiar in establishing a key mystery and riding its ambiguity to the final act. Teenager Char (Hazel Doupe) lives with her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) and grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie), although Char tends to take care of herself due to her mother's depression. Angela disappears for several days, then returns acting like a different person altogether. The changes seem good at first, until Angela's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic to the point where Char questions if it's even her mother at all.

These sorts of stories are not new; we can look to "Saint Maud" as a recent example of a story where everything is either in the protagonist's head or if something supernatural is going on. For a time, "You Are Not My Mother" goes down that same path before Dolan thankfully makes a choice and runs with it at full speed, invoking Irish folklore and pulling off a few creepy moments. For a debut feature and a low budget affair, the film takes a smart approach to keeping certain elements suggestive while its solid cast keeps things convincing. There are some issues here, like a subplot involving school bullies that's unconvincing and a climax that can get a little hokey (yes, someone does yell out the title at one point). But Dolan gets a lot of credit for simply telling a scary story in a straightforward manner, with almost no frills. In an age of horror films clamoring for deeper meaning and prestige, it's a small relief to see someone so confident in going back to basics.