The 48th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) opens on Thursday, September 7th with the international premiere of Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated epic The Boy and the Heron (Kimitachi wa Do Ikiruka) and comes to a close on Sunday, September 17th with the world premiere of Thom Zimny’s Sylvester Stallone documentary Sly, exploring the close to five-decade career of one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars and filmmakers. Between those dates, the city will once again be abuzz with all things movies as a plethora of narrative features, documentaries, and shorts from around the world screen throughout downtown Toronto. For the eighth year, TIFF will shut down King Street West between Peter Street and University Avenue September 7th – 10th, transforming the section into Festival Street open to the public with food vendors, plus free open-air screenings in David Pecaut Square of movies like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Addams Family Values, Superman III, and Clueless. Finn Wolfhard’s band The Aubreys will be among the acts playing TIFF’s Next Wave Block Party on Saturday September 9th.
While we declared the 2022 edition “the queerest TIFF ever”, this year’s lineup does not disappoint when it comes to LGBTQ+ films and celebrating work by queer artists. The TIFF Tribute Award for Performance will be presented to Colman Domingo, the Emmy-winning star of George C. Wolfe’s Bayard Rustin biopic Rustin and Greg Kwedar’s indie Sing Sing about a troupe of incarcerated actors staging a play, both screening at TIFF 2023. While TIFF’s Impact Media Award will go to queer auteur Pedro Almodóvar, who will also take part in the festival’s In Conversation With… series where his latest English-language short, the touching queer western Strange Way of Life, will receive its North American premiere. Although the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike means that fewer stars will be on the red carpet at TIFF, there will no shortage of impressive names on screen, including Elliot Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Nathan Lane, Bowen Yang, Jodie Foster, Eve Lindley, Ian McKellen, and Lil Nas X.
TIFF’s Trans Film Mentorship program will hold its second annual Trans Filmmaker Summit X TIFF on Sunday September 10th, following the always fabulous Queer Brunch, hosted by Toronto’s LGBTQ+ film festival Inside Out. Away from the official TIFF festivities, notorious underground queer filmmaker and artist Bruce LaBruce will host his annual party late into the night at the Bovine on Queen Street West on Saturday September 9th.
The Queer Review will be at TIFF 2023 to bring you news, reviews, and interviews. Ahead of the fest, we take a look at some of this year’s queer highlights.
Close To You directed by Dominic Savage, Special Presentations, World Premiere
Sam (Elliot Page) hasn’t been home since his transition, and after four years in Toronto, he takes a long-dreaded trip back to Cobourg for his father’s birthday. On the train there, he runs into Katherine (Hillary Baack), a friend from high school with her own complicated life now, and feelings from their unresolved past begin to bubble to the surface. It’s a serendipitous encounter, as Sam worries about seeing his family after so much time apart — not for fear that they’ll reject him, but because of the unsolicited comments and questions he’ll receive about his transition, placing the weight of his family’s ignorance and discomfort squarely on his shoulders.
Close to You is an emotionally observant drama about coming home as yourself, only for everyone to treat you like a completely different person. It’s a powerful new film from star and producer Page, capturing an all-too-familiar experience, as Sam exercises patience with his family’s baseline acceptance and well-intentioned clumsiness. It isn’t long before he has to put himself first to free himself from a burden that is his family’s to reckon with, and live unapologetically as the person he has always been.
With an honest and fully felt performance, Page shows us Sam’s fraught process of trying to reconnect with the people he grew apart from as he became more himself, and coping with the dread of returning to a space that never felt fully welcoming to begin with. Director Dominic Savage (The Escape, TIFF ’17) creates a series of intimate spaces for the many conversations in the film, which features a stellar Canadian cast. In the end, Katherine is the person Sam finds solace in, as they both turn the page to new and brighter chapters in their lives. – Jane Schoettle
TIFF public screenings: September 10th and 11th
Rustin directed by George C. Wolfe, Special Presentations, International Premiere
Sixty years on, the March on Washington is remembered as the watershed point in civil rights history where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. There were many people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make that moment possible, with their efforts led by one important figure: Bayard Rustin. George C. Wolfe’s latest film tells Rustin’s story, as the activist who brought together an alliance of civil rights, labour, and religious organizations, while being forced into the background of the movement because of his sexuality.
An advisor and close friend to Dr. King, Rustin has a difficult time convincing the reluctant group of leaders that he can organize what would be one of the largest political rallies in American history. While pushing ahead, he’s reinvigorated by a burgeoning relationship. Afraid that his gay identity will harm the movement, members of the coalition start to take issue with Rustin being the face of the march and, wary of sparking a media scandal, he becomes torn between the needs of the cause and his personal life. While that struggle weighs heavy, Colman Domingo (also at TIFF in Sing Sing) gives a joyous performance as Rustin. His rousing spirit and determination pull everyone together as we start to see history fall into place, piece by piece. Rustin’s story not only gives us insight into the mechanics of protest, but also serves as a crucial reminder that freedom doesn’t mean much if all of us can’t march towards it together. – Jane Schoettle
TIFF public screenings: September 12th, 13th and 15th
I Am Sirat directed by Deepa Mehta and Sirat Taneja, TIFF Docs, World Premiere
From Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta and first-time documentarian Sirat Taneja comes this unprecedented look at trans life in Delhi — through the eyes of Sirat, a trans woman forced to go back into the closet when living with, and caring for, her traditional mother.
Out in the world, Sirat has a great life — a good job, supportive friends both in and out of the city’s queer community, and a growing presence on Instagram, where she lip-synchs pop songs with pointed messages about empowerment and sexuality. But at home, Sirat must pretend to be someone she never was — the dutiful son of a mother who can’t accept the idea of a trans daughter. Sirat can’t even get dressed as herself in her own bedroom, renting a space nearby for her clothes and makeup. And this seemingly irresolvable conflict proves to be a microcosm of modern India — caught between tradition and progress, and not changing as fast as some need it to.
This is a true collaboration between Deepa Mehta and Sirat Taneja, whose candid footage, shot in portrait mode on her phone, is key to I Am Sirat’s authenticity. But Mehta’s empathetic eye and compassionate interviewing style prove just as essential, letting Sirat tell her own story on her own terms — and be seen, as she is, in full. – Norm Wilner
TIFF public screenings: September 14th, 15th and 16th
Summer Qamp directed by Jen Markowitz, TIFF Docs, World Premiere
Time is a flat circle, and the right-wing rage machine is once again persecuting queer and trans people. Jen Markowitz’s latest demonstrates that one of the best salves is sunlight ― specifically, the sun that shines down on Camp fYrefly in rural Alberta, where queer kids can spend a few days hanging out and just getting to be kids together “without any of the explanations,” as one camper puts it.
Warm, funny, and moving ― and made with obvious consideration for, and clear cooperation from, the people in front of the lens ― Summer Qamp cuts through the fear-mongering around queer and trans kids simply by spending time with its subjects as they are. The kids at Camp fYrefly are less concerned with their specific status in the LGBTQIA2S+ community than they are with what they’re going to do in the talent show or how they’re going to overcome a lifelong fear of horses ― which, honestly, does seem a lot more practical.
Removed from bullies and awkward or uncomfortable family situations, the kids immediately blossom into their empathetic, confident, amazing selves, sharing nerdy obsessions and encouraging one another to do the things that scare them. Maybe it’s petting that horse; maybe it’s telling their parents they’re trans. Either way, it’s wonderful to watch them figure it out. – Norm Wilner
TIFF public screenings: September 9th and 10th
National Anthem directed by Luke Gilford, Centrepiece, TIFF Next Wave Selects, International Premiere
At 21 years old, soft-spoken construction worker Dylan (Charlie Plummer) is already head of his household. He takes care of his younger brother, helps pay the bills, and maintains a semblance of stability while their alcoholic mother (Robyn Lively) tries to make up for the partying she missed as a young parent. When Dylan accepts a temporary job at the House of Splendor, a ranch community of queer rodeo performers in search of their own version of the American Dream, he finds a chosen family that encourages him to explore formerly dormant parts of himself. Dylan quickly learns the rhythms of the homestead, working during the day and building deep friendships with the performers during twilight gatherings and picnics. He becomes enthralled by Sky (Eve Lindley) the community’s star barrel dancer and partner of the ranch owner, Pepe (Rene Rosado). The pair’s passionate connection gives Dylan the confidence to forge his own identity, but also threatens to unsettle the equilibrium of this hard-won community.
In this dreamy, glowing debut, set against stunning New Mexico landscapes, photographer Luke Gilford reinvents the coming-of-age story, showing genuine affection for this world, which he first explored in his 2020 photo project on the real International Gay Rodeo Association. Plummer’s naturalistic performance imbues Dylan with great tenderness, but also the quiet assurance of someone who has had to take on the responsibilities and sacrifices of an adult far too soon. As the genderfluid Sky, Lindley also shines, crafting an emotionally rich and sympathetic portrait of a playful and magnetic ingénue. – Robyn Citizen
TIFF public screenings: September 14th and 15th
Backspot directed by D.W. Waterson, Discovery, TIFF Next Wave Selects, World Premiere
There are a lot of movies about cheerleaders, but Backspot is out to do something different. It goes behind the phony smiles of its young athletes to explore the ambition and drive that defines them. Sure, Toronto DJ and filmmaker D.W. Waterson still brings an irrepressible energy to the obligatory scenes of young women pushing themselves to perform dizzying feats of agility and strength. But Waterson and screenwriter Joanne Sarazen (Tammy’s Always Dying, TIFF ’19) know their characters are still just kids, dealing with the same insecurities and challenges as everyone else. They might launch themselves into the air like superheroes, but one wrong move will bring them crashing to the ground.
Riley (Devery Jacobs, who also produced) can’t afford to make that wrong move. The ferocious competitor and furious perfectionist finds herself under pressure when she and her girlfriend Amanda (2023 TIFF Rising Star Kudakwashe Rutendo) are both selected for an elite cheer squad. As the diamond-hard coach (Evan Rachel Wood) and her assistant (Thomas Antony Olajide, TIFF Rising Star ’21) put them through their paces, Riley’s anxiety escalates, and some old self-harming behaviour resurfaces. Something’s going to break… but whether it’s physical or emotional is anybody’s guess. A decade after her revelatory turn in Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls (TIFF ’13), Jacobs has grown into a performer who holds the screen like no one else. She understands that acknowledging one’s vulnerability is a formidable strength, and Backspot is about watching Riley figure that out as well. – Norm Wilner
TIFF public screenings: September 8th, 11th, and 15th
Dicks: The Musical directed by Larry Charles, Midnight Madness, World Premiere
There’s no business like show business — except perhaps the business of selling the bristles and brushes for robot vacuums, a cutthroat industry that pits “confident heterosexual” salesmen like Craig and Trevor against each other on a daily basis. But before Craig can shove a hose in Trevor’s mouth and turn on the water, these two big-dicked blowhards come to the startling realization that they are fucking identical twins raised apart since birth.
Fortunately, these are the perfect conditions to mount an old-fashioned parent trap, and so the pair swap lives to restore the nuclear family that they have long been denied. But can love still bloom between their eccentric mother (Megan Mullally), who is so old she carries her vagina around in a purse, and their closeted father (Nathan Lane), who is obsessively preoccupied with cannibalistic, humanoid, underground-dwelling sewer boys? Hey, I ain’t bringing around a cloud to rain on their parade, not with songs this catchy and choreography that features Megan Thee Stallion domming worker drones as she lays down bars about how she “out-alphas the alphas” in her midst.
Yes, Dicks: The Musical is a full-blown movie musical and it is proudly queer as fuck. Narrated by God (Bowen Yang) and adapted from a two-man stage show by Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp, who turn in memorably manic performances as the titular twinsome dicks, this all-singing, all-dancing madness is also directed by comedy royalty Larry Charles (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat), so you can count on uproarious 11 o’clock numbers so unhinged, they go all the way to midnight. – Peter Kuplowsky
TIFF public screenings: September 7th, 8th, and 16th
Days of Happiness (Les Jours heureux) directed by Chloé Robichaud, Special Presentations, World Premiere
Charismatic, gifted Emma (Sophie Desmarais, who starred in Robichaud’s breakout, Sarah Prefers to Run, TIFF ’13) is on track to become a major player on the Quebec classical music scene. Audiences are enraptured by her work, but her career is very closely managed by her controlling father, Patrick (Sylvain Marcel), who’s also her agent. After years of acquiescing to his demands, Emma is finally in a position to re-evaluate both their professional and personal relationships — and that’s when cellist and single mother Naëlle (Nour Belkhiria) enters her life, offering her the chance to experience an entirely different type of family dynamic.
Comparisons to Todd Field’s Tár are likely inevitable, but this is a very different project. For a start, Robichaud is much more sympathetic to her characters, and far more invested in their mental and emotional well-being. Cinematographer Ariel Méthot and artistic consultant Yannick Nézet-Séguin (music director and principal conductor of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain) give the film a visual and aural texture all its own. And Desmarais is uniquely compelling in the role of Emma, who’s only just beginning to realize she can have the life she deserves, if she fights for it. – Norm Wilner
TIFF public screenings: September 9th and 10th
Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero directed by Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel, Gala Presentations, World Premiere
He conquered the pop music world with his first hit. He trampled the border between country and hip hop. And he invited absolutely everybody along on his big, bright, queer celebration of life as an industry baby. He’s not yet 25.
Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill, is an unprecedented artist and a singular phenomenon in pop culture. “Old Town Road” shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for 19 weeks, the longest-running chart topper ever. He followed that with hits that were both irresistible and increasingly provocative. His stadium tours became must-attend events for anyone hoping to catch this dazzling moment in pop culture.
Documentary filmmakers Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel embedded themselves with Lil Nas X as he navigated the whirlwind of fame, creativity, and growing responsibility that came with his meteoric success. The resultant film features spectacular tour footage and fascinating glimpses of life backstage, interwoven with Montero pre-fame — even then, his vision and ambition were clear.
Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero offers a joyous immersion in the world of a game-changing artist and the fans who’ve joined him in that change. To watch concertgoers express what it means to share space with a Black, gay superstar, with their fellow fans, and with thousands of families brought into their world through the power of pop music, is to capture a precious image of how transformation happens.
TIFF public screenings: 9th, 14th, 16th and 17th
The Critic directed Anand Tucker, Special Presentations, World Premiere
The year is 1936. As the new steward of London’s Chronicle, David Brooke (Mark Strong) seeks to revive the financially troubled daily as the country’s most-read family paper. In the firing line is long time theatre critic Jimmy Erksine (Ian McKellen), whose extravagant prose and personal “proclivities” are distasteful to David. Jimmy has a lot to lose as an elderly gay man in a culture and legal system deeply hostile to homosexuality. Yet he cannot resist writing the flamboyantly merciless critiques that are his trademark.
Actor Nina Land (Gemma Arterton) — for whom the married David secretly carries a torch — is a regular target for Jimmy’s most withering remarks. As pressure to appease his employer mounts, Jimmy concocts a plot to entrap both David and Nina — herself secretly in love with a married painter (Ben Barnes). But with the Blackshirts taking to the streets amid anti-queer police raids, Jimmy may be grossly overestimating his ability to emerge from his elaborate scheme unscathed.
Directed by Anand Tucker (producer, TIFF ’03’s Girl with a Pearl Earring) and adapted by Patrick Marber (Notes on a Scandal) from Anthony Quinn’s novel Curtain Call, The Critic brims with intrigue — each of its central characters struggling within a web of blackmail and fraught desire to hang on to what they hold dear. – Jane Schoettle
TIFF public screenings: 11th, 13th and 16th
Chuck Chuck Baby directed by Janis Pugh, Centrepiece, International Premiere
Helen (Louise Brealey), a reserved, gentle woman, is slowly collapsing under the weight of her inexplicable life. She lives with her torpid husband and his much younger girlfriend (and their new colicky baby), working nights at the local chicken processing plant. There are two things that keep her hanging on: music, and her dear elderly mother-in-law Gwen (Sorcha Cusack), whom she cares for. This dismal state of affairs is interrupted when Joanne (Annabel Scholey), a former neighbour (and Helen’s schoolgirl crush), arrives back in town after her father’s death. His house holds difficult childhood memories for Joanne, of events that many on the street remember, but since she’s been away, she’s become unapologetic in facing down the small-town malice that’s slung at her. What begins as a casual meeting between the two women swiftly turns to friendship and then to love.
Joanne is beguiled by Helen’s sweet naiveté, and Helen is in awe of Joanne’s courage and confidence. Their burgeoning relationship is threatened when Helen’s home life is further upended, accompanied by turbulence within the tight-knit group of women who work with her on the factory floor. Soon, Helen and Joanne each face a difficult, perhaps impossible, emotional choice about their futures. Writer and director Janis Pugh infuses every frame with love for her characters in all of their complexity. The more serious themes of finding strength through community and the quest for female autonomy are intertwined with joyous, observant humour, and spontaneous musical numbers that the characters find themselves pulled into, capturing the blissful catharsis of art and the way it empowers us to be brave. – Jane Schoettle
TIFF public screenings: September 8th, 10th, and 16th
Orlando, My Political Biography (Orlando, ma biographie politique) directed by Paul B. Preciado, Wavelengths, Canadian Premiere
Orlando, My Political Biography is the rousing, heady debut feature by theorist, critic, and curator Paul B. Preciado. When prodded by peers to write about his experience of transition, he remarks, wryly, that Virginia Woolf had already done so. The work in reference is her classic 1928 novel, centred on the life of an androgynous aristocrat who changes their gender over several centuries, a literary masterwork that serves here as a starting point for a bold, free-form reflection on the nature of contemporary trans life and a celebration of queerness.
Playfully maximalist — locating the ribald alongside the sober, and erudition with the plain-spoken — Preciado transmutes Woolf’s love of language into an equally joyous appreciation of cinematic form, trading his own story and the novel’s sole protagonist for a multitudinous, collective experience. The result is a film of not one Orlando, but several. Collaborating with an intergenerational group of trans and non-binary performers, the participants recite passages from the novel, share personal stories, and act out staged sequences, deftly situating the institutions of gender and sexuality alongside interrelated social, medical, and legal frameworks in order to confront and contort each. Smart, precise, deeply generous — and not least of all, fun! — Orlando, My Political Biography takes inspiration from the past while remaining adamantly grounded in the present and buoyed by commitments to a liberatory future. – Andréa Picard
TIFF public screenings: September 7th and 8th
Toll (Pedágio) directed by Carolina Markowicz, Centrepiece, World Premiere
Confirming herself as one of Brazil’s clearest voices in current cinema, director Carolina Markowicz (being honoured with TIFF’s Emerging Talent Award) returns to TIFF after regaling audiences with last year’s uniquely dark and twisted comedy Charcoal. While training her singular gaze again on the dynamics by which a small family unit tries to stay afloat in the face of chaos, the tone and focus here differ greatly. The narrative and formal economy honed by Markowicz allow rising star Maeve Jinkings to widen her range within a story of motherhood as tough love gone wrong.
When Suellen (Jinkings), a toll booth attendant, realizes she can use her job to help a gang of thieves steal prized accessories from the wealthy people driving between São Paulo and the coast, she convinces herself she’s doing it for a noble cause: to send her teenage son, Antonio (an incredibly assured Kauan Alvarenga) to an expensive gay conversion workshop led by a renowned priest. But she unwittingly triggers a chain of events that will leave no one happy, except maybe the thieves.
Sneaking into an industrial milieu and the ethically conflicting life stories that lie at its heart, Markowicz discovers strength in the fragile, as Antonio’s unfazed take on adversity allows him to find his own voice every day, while Suellen and her work buddy struggle to not get crushed by guilt. It’s all part of a changing social landscape, one that seems to move as fast as the vehicles forced to pay their dues at the toll. – Diana Cadavid
TIFF public screenings: September 8th, 9th and 16th
Solo directed by Sophie Dupuis, Gala Presentations, World Premiere
Set in Montreal’s vivacious drag scene, this tender character study from writer-director Sophie Dupuis (Underground) blends emotional intelligence with irresistible flair. Focusing on a talented performer whose past and present merge in unexpected ways, Solo is an incisive tale of desire, dependence, and hard-won self-actualization.
Simon (TIFF ’17 Rising Star Théodore Pellerin) is a skilled makeup artist by day and a sensational drag artist by night. Young and carefree, his energies are overwhelmingly set on honing his act and partying — until he meets Olivier (Félix Maritaud), a handsome, charming fellow drag artist from France. The two become lovers and artistic partners, crafting sexy, flamboyant duets that thrive on their intrinsic chemistry. Just as Simon is getting accustomed to this exciting new relationship, his long-estranged mother, Claire (Quebec screen icon Anne-Marie Cadieux), swoops back into his life. A revered opera singer, Claire is in town for a show — and Simon must work around her schedule if he wants to see her. As Olivier becomes more domineering and Simon struggles to get Claire’s attention, disquieting similarities emerge between lover and mother. Neither Olivier nor Claire seems to truly respect Simon. Both offer just enough love to hook Simon, but prove emotionally unavailable the moment things become complicated.
Dupuis’ portrait balances empathy with critical distance: it’s obvious Simon is a good-hearted person with reasonable needs, but it’s just as obvious he’s caught in a pattern of codependence, desperately seeking approval from two strong personalities equally incapable of granting it. In the end, the one person Simon truly needs to commune with is himself.
TIFF public screenings: September 10th and 11th
NYAD directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Gala Presentations, International Premiere
At the age of 60, Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) is frustrated about the way she left her swimming career behind and starts training once again to do the marathon swim she failed 30 years prior. Her best friend, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), thinks it’s a little foolish, but has no choice except to jump in as her coach once it becomes clear that Nyad isn’t backing down. When navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans, also at TIFF in Mother, Couch) comes on board with the project, they finally have someone to guide her through the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits. The arduous swim takes a shocking toll on her body, and Nyad’s obsession starts to wear on the team. Through flashbacks, we start to get a peek into her past and the trauma she’s fighting against.
Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are no strangers to extreme endeavours, using their documentary background from Free Solo (TIFF ’18) and The Rescue (TIFF ’21) to help frame this voyage with archival material where we get to see and hear a young Diana Nyad dive into her passion. But she couldn’t have done it alone, and the film is ultimately a story of friendship, brought powerfully to life by Bening and Foster, two incredible actors that have had their own storied careers. NYAD is an ode to the people that help us make the journey to where we need to be.
TIFF public screenings: September 12th, 14th and 16th
I Don’t Know Who You Are directed by M. H. Murray, Discovery, World Premiere
After a sexual assault, Toronto musician Benjamin (2023 TIFF Rising Star Mark Clennon) must pull together the money for HIV-preventive PEP treatment in the event that he’s been exposed to the virus — while also avoiding the man (Anthony Diaz) he’s just started dating. Short of cash and determined to solve the problem himself, Benjamin spends a frantic weekend trying to raise the $900 he needs in the 72-hour window when PEP is most effective.
In his first feature, writer-director M. H. Murray filters his own real-life experience through the character of Benjamin, whom he and Clennon created in their 2020 short Ghost. And like that short, I Don’t Know Who You Are is all about inner conflicts forcing themselves to the surface, with an additional level of commentary on how hard it is to simply exist in Toronto without money or status.
Benjamin’s increasingly fraught visits to his friends serve as a tour through the city’s unspoken class system, shading in further aspects of his mounting anxiety; there are points in the film when it feels like we’re watching a microbudget version of Uncut Gems (TIFF ’19), with a frenzied protagonist trying so hard to hide his desperation and panic. It’s a powerhouse debut, showcasing a remarkable performance by Clennon, a Toronto artist and poet effortlessly holding the screen in his own first feature. (Clennon also served as the film’s producer and story editor, and wrote and performed Benjamin’s songs.) You won’t see another debut like I Don’t Know Who You Are this year. Brace yourselves. – Norm Wilner
TIFF public screenings: September 7th and 8th
Without Air (Elfogy a levegő) directed by Katalin Moldovai, Discovery, World Premiere
In a small Hungarian town, Ana Bauch (Ágnes Krasznahorkai) is a dedicated and liberal-minded literature teacher within the public system. Beloved by her students for her unorthodox and creative approach, she assigns Agnieszka Holland’s 1995 Total Eclipse, depicting the relationship between 19th-century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, so they can better understand Rimbaud’s poetry. When a conservative father interrupts his son Victor (Soma Sándor) during the screening and hears of the assignment, he reports Ana to the school’s principal (Tünde Skovrán). Ana is accused of misconduct and spreading homosexual propaganda, and when the local media get wind of the brewing scandal, she faces even more scrutiny. In a system within which many have given up, Ana must decide to fight or to flee — perhaps to a restaurant job abroad.
Regardless of the verdict, a good teacher is life-changing, and what Ana instills in her pupils ripples beyond classroom lessons. Touching on education, isolationism, and brain drain — all in the face of rising fascism — writer-director Katalin Moldovai unfolds a bold debut, capturing her nation’s climate (which Ana, unlike her country’s president, doesn’t deny is undergoing an ecological crisis) and directly challenging the regime in which rationality and reason are under attack and freedom of expression — public and private — is actively repressed. – Dorota Lech
TIFF public screenings: September 10th and 11th
The Queen of My Dreams directed by Fawzia Mirza, Discovery, World Premiere
In 1999, the sudden death of her father Hassan (Hamza Haq) sends queer Muslim grad student Azra (TIFF 2023 Rising Star Amrit Kaur) flying back to her ancestral home in Pakistan, where her stern mother Mariam (Nimra Bucha) demands she play the role of the perfect grieving daughter. But through flashbacks to Mariam’s own life in Karachi 30 years before, we see the connections uniting mother and daughter, starting with their shared love of the Bollywood star Sharmila Tagore.
Fawzia Mirza’s bright, energetic first feature, which grew out of their 2012 short film of the same name, explores the chasm between individual desires and cultural expectations, fluidly slipping between the textures of Indian cinema and the concerns of a Canadian coming-of-age picture. Mirza builds a convincing sense of time and place, showcasing a great dual performance from Kaur (The Sex Lives of College Girls) as both Azra and the younger Mariam and allowing a charismatic supporting turn from Haq (Transplant) as both versions of Hassan. As the older Mariam, veteran actor Bucha, whom you may recognize from Ms. Marvel, harmonizes with Kaur, showing us hints of the woman Mariam used to be within the person she’s become.
Sort Of cinematographer Matt Irwin gives the 1969 sequences the vivid primary colours and lighting of the era’s Bollywood movies while keeping the 1999 material more subdued and naturalistic, and editor Simone Smith (a Canadian Screen Award winner for I Like Movies, TIFF ’22) shuffles us confidently between the two time frames. Azra might feel lost, but this movie knows exactly where it’s going. – Norm Wilner
TIFF public screenings: September 8th and 9th
Unicorns directed by Sally El Hosaini and James Krishna Floyd, Special Presentations, World Premiere
An alluring fusion of forbidden romance and colliding cultures, Unicorns stars Ben Hardy and newcomer Jason Patel as two people who might become lovers, if only they can build a bridge between their very different worlds. Hard-working single father Luke (Ben Hardy) has grown accustomed to settling for transactional sex in his fleeting parcels of spare time. But when he stumbles across an underground nightclub, he meets Aysha (Jason Patel), a beautiful, seductive woman. Their first kiss yields fireworks — which are immediately followed by Luke’s sobering realization that Aysha is not the cisgender woman he thought, but a remarkably femme drag queen. Embarrassed, Luke departs.
Sensing a connection that might transcend sexual orientation, Aysha tracks Luke down and offers him a night job driving her to performance venues. Needing the additional income, Luke tentatively accepts this offer of work and is introduced to London’s thriving underground “gaysian” scene. Spending more time together and navigating the challenges in their respective domestic lives that go beyond the paradigms of gender and intimacy, they face the question of whether or not there is a love that can exist beyond traditional labels.
Co-directed by Sally El Hosaini — who made a splash at last year’s TIFF with Opening Night Film The Swimmers — and filmmaker-actor James Krishna Floyd, Unicorns alternates between the thrill of raw desire, the gravity of familial responsibility, and the transformative power of being seen for who you really are. – Jane Schoettle
TIFF public screenings: September 8th, 9th and 17th
Frybread Face and Me directed by Billy Luther, Discovery, TIFF Next Wave Selects, International Premiere
It’s the start of summer, 1990, and all 11-year-old Benny can think about is seeing Fleetwood Mac in his hometown of San Diego. Obsessed with Stevie Nicks and his dolls (“action figures,” he reminds us), Benny’s dreams are derailed when his parents surprise him with the news they’re sending him to his grandma’s on the Navajo Nation. A lifelong city kid, Benny is a fish out of water in the rural northern Arizona community. Grappling with feelings of abandonment, his initial isolation is enhanced by not being able to communicate with his loving, Navajo-speaking grandma (who has refused to ever learn English). Making matters worse is his bullying uncle Marvin, who sees Benny’s sensitivity as weakness.
But Benny’s summer takes a new twist when Dawn (a.k.a. Frybread Face), his bold and brashly confident cousin, is unexpectedly dropped off. Rarely seen without her beloved doll Jeff Bridges (she’s a massive Starman fan), Dawn is a force of nature unlike anything Benny has experienced. Having spent her life on the rez and able to speak Navajo, Dawn is Benny’s knowledgeable but often irascible guide. The connection between the cousins grows stronger until Benny’s city life once again beckons.
Executive produced by Taika Waititi, writer-director Billy Luther’s debut is not only a touching and refreshing coming-of-age story, but also a beautiful tribute to cultural awakening, unbreakable family bonds, and memories of childhood summers. Keir Tallman delivers a tender performance as Benny, while Charley Hogan is a true standout in her hilarious, poignant portrayal of the eponymous Frybread Face. – Jason Ryle
TIFF public screenings: September 11th and 13th
Your Mother’s Son (Anak Ka Ng Ina Mo) directed by Jun Robles Lana, Centrepiece, World Premiere
Love can take all shapes and sizes, and Jun Robles Lana’s (Bwakaw, TIFF ’12) latest chamber drama explores and challenges just that idea. What are the boundaries that define love, and where do we draw the line between morality and amorality, normality and abnormality?
Sarah is a middle-aged woman who hustles as the sole breadwinner of her family of two. As she scrambles to teach online courses and meet her food orders to provide for her son, her helper, Amy, wonders why her boss works so hard. Sarah’s son Emman doesn’t have a job and is often killing time at Amy’s by getting high and having sex. He’s a delinquent from all angles, but strangely possessive of his mother. One day, Sarah brings one of her students, Oliver, home to give him refuge from his violent father. Like throwing a catfish into a tank of sardines, Oliver’s appearance stirs Emman’s life and impacts his atypical relationship with Sarah. The change soon begins to crack Emman’s tank, and all the shocking secrets flood out uncontrollably.
On the surface, Lana’s newest film seems to delve into the theme of the Oedipus complex, yet it invents a category of its own. The odd, intimate relationships are skilfully brought to life by his talented cast — particularly Sue Prado and Kokoy de Santos — who play crucial roles in blowing up the balloon of intensity till its final burst at the climactic ending. – June Kim
TIFF public screenings: September 10th and 12th
El Sabor de la Navidad directed by Alejandro Lozano, Special Presentations, World Premiere
Mexican-American superstar Salma Hayek Pinault produces this heartfelt Mexican dramedy that weaves together three stories depicting the high emotions surrounding one of the most important festivities of the year: Christmas. Mariana Treviño and Andrés Almeida, best known for their TV roles in 100 días para enamorarnos, are reunited here as Valeria and Gerardo. When Gerardo sneaks into Valeria’s kitchen to help her prepare traditional dishes for the Christmas dinners of several families, he realizes her deep commitment to cooking is all about love. He tries to express his sudden feelings for her, but to no avail.
One of the families that hired Valeria to cater has to deal with increased tension, as one of the adult children promises to attend dinner after a four-year absence. They not only present their assured new identity but also the person they plan to soon marry. It all seems to be too much for the family’s matriarch, who struggles to understand her children and to let them be who they truly are. To complete the picture, best friends Chava and Santi take on shared duties as Santa Claus in the public arena to make ends meet for the season, but through a series of misunderstandings end up fighting to see who’s the best Santa in the alameda. When the three scenarios collide, the biggest challenges offer the best opportunities for people to right their wrongs, open their hearts, and finally share the true, forgiving spirit of the season. – Cameron Bailey
TIFF public screenings: September 13th and 14th
Hell of a Summer directed by Finn Wolfhard & Billy Bryk, Midnight Madness, TIFF Next Wave Selects, World Premiere
Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk are no strangers to genre throwbacks. Having launched their careers starring in some of the decade’s most visible nostalgia vehicles (Stranger Things, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), their sardonic horror-comedy Hell of a Summer assuredly slides into the requisite rhythms and rituals of a 1980s summer-camp slasher, while adding a dash of the self-reflexivity that defined the masked-killer renaissance of the 1990s. Starring as a pair of horny teenagers looking to score with their fellow counsellors at the rustic Camp Pineway, Wolfhard and Bryk join a veritable murderer’s row of would-be victim archetypes from himbo to mean girl, in a collective fight to survive the night after a slasher begins to wreak havoc the weekend before the campers are due to arrive.
The most prominent character of the bunch is Jason, an older, keener counsellor who refuses to accept that he has possibly outgrown the position. Portrayed by Fred Hechinger (the Fear Street trilogy) with an amusingly manic bombast, Jason’s eccentricity makes him the number one suspect once the bodies start piling up. Could his arrested development have manifested in murder, or is he your vintage red herring? His name is Jason after all…. No matter the twist, first-time directors Wolfhard and Bryk nimbly keep all the slicing and dicing on the lighter side of the genre, pinning a sincere heart on its sleeve, and not merely on the pointy end of a machete. – Peter Kuplowksy
TIFF public screenings: September 10th, 11th and 16th
How to Have Sex directed Molly Manning Walker, Discovery, TIFF Next Wave Selects, North American Premiere
Yearly, hordes of young British tourists descend on Malia, a haven on the Greek island of Crete of sun-kissed motels and sticky nightclubs, for a week of unsupervised gallivanting. Fresh off their final exams, bestie trio Taz (Mia McKenna-Bruce); Skye (Lara Peake), who seems older than she is; and Em (Enva Lewis), a straight-A student, arrive on the scene with a simple itinerary: party hard and get laid. Clad in bodycon and down for adventure, the 16-year-olds are successful only in achieving the first goal on night one. Taz — a goofball and the only virgin in the lot — awakes to a hangover and cat calls from the balcony of neighbour Badger (Shaun Thomas). “It’s all very Romeo and Juliet,” Skye jokes, and soon Badger and his pals Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Paige (Laura Ambler) join the gang, embarking on night number two. Drunken escapades lead Taz beachward with smooth-talking Paddy. The next morning is fuzzy and full of lingering confusion. Meanwhile, as exam results roll in, it’s clear that life will soon set the girls on different paths.
Molly Manning Walker’s glittery, gritty, EDM-soundtracked feature debut rages in a timely way, avoiding coming-of-age clichés and, more importantly, any shaming. Serving a cocktail of youthful horniness and the realities of being in such a vulnerable state, How to Have Sex is about self-acceptance, friendship, and survival. This film is for anyone who’s ever felt like being left behind leads to the end of the world. – Dorota Lech
TIFF public screenings: September 8th and 15th
Next Goal Wins directed by Taika Waititi, Special Presentations, World Premiere
Whip-smart, playful, and deeply rooted in Pacific culture, Taika Waititi is the perfect filmmaker to adapt the unlikely true story of Next Goal Wins. Last at the Festival in 2019 with Jojo Rabbit, which won TIFF’s People’s Choice Award before scoring the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Waititi brings his irresistible mix of big emotion and hilarity to tell the tale of a soccer team best known for being absolutely hopeless.
The nation of American Samoa (population 45,000) was never going to be an international football powerhouse, but a 31-0 loss to Australia put them in the record books in the worst possible way. Dutch-American manager Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) lands in the slow-paced island community determined to inject footballing discipline into the team as they make a qualifying run for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But even if the outcome — chronicled in a documentary by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison — is known, the pleasure comes from watching the characters on the pitch, Indigenous Samoan players who mostly sucked, mostly knew it, and still played their hearts out.
Fassbender is the star here, in a rare comic turn, but the discovery is Kaimana, who plays real-life team member Jaiyah. Like Jaiyah, Kaimana is a member of American Samoa’s fa’afafine community and delivers a performance that’s warm, deep, and commanding in every scene. Like Eagle vs. Shark, Boy, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Next Goal Wins is rich with both Waititi’s sideways humour, and his embrace of the weird, vulnerable, and unpredictable in all of us. – Cameron Bailey
TIFF public screenings: September 10th, 12th and 14th
Thank You For Coming directed by Karan Boolani, Gala Presentations, World Premiere
Smart, successful, and respected, Delhi food blogger Kanika Kapoor (Bhumi Pednekar) is what you might call a hapless romantic. A serial monogamist, she’s spent her entire adult life seeking a satisfying love match — both emotionally and physically. But no matter the partner, and no matter how enthusiastic the relationship, she’s never been able to have an orgasm… and it’s become so damaging to her self-image that she’s about to throw away her dreams of a fairy-tale romance and settle for a devoted but painfully dull suitor. That is, until the morning after her engagement party, when Kanika wakes up satisfied for the very first time… and realizes she can’t remember who’s responsible. So she must run through all the likely parties — her fiancé, the exes who showed up to wish her well, the husband of a bestie with whom she’s always had a certain connection — in order to figure out what she really wants. She wanted to live a fairy tale, and now she’s a reverse Cinderella.
It’s a raunchy, horny, unapologetically sex-positive modern comedy about a woman refusing to be classified as “a bore or a whore” and pursuing her own pleasure — literally! Showcasing a sparkling comic turn from Bollywood star Pednekar, and a game supporting cast — including Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire, TIFF ’08) in full silver-fox mode as one of Kanika’s exes — Thank You for Coming is one of the brightest surprises of the year.
TIFF public screenings: September 15th and 16th
The Human Surge 3 (El auge del humano 3) directed by Eduardo Williams, Wavelengths, North American Premiere
The Human Surge 3 is the thrilling follow-up to Eduardo Williams’ acclaimed feature debut, The Human Surge (Wavelengths, 2016), in which the Argentinian filmmaker continues his exploration of social connection by way of travel and technology. There is no The Human Surge 2: leaping from 1 to 3 is simply one example of the film’s myriad challenges to established logics and regimen. Similarly utopian in its speculative refutation of gender, language, and borders, Williams’ film is a hypnotic feat of contemporary image-making, inviting a novel mode of spectatorship.
Spiral-like in form, falling endlessly forward while simultaneously circling back through repeated locations, social arrangements, and phrases, the film begins as three groups of friends from Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Peru drift through their own harsh and disorienting environments. Gradually, they begin to share each other’s spaces and dreams, culminating in a collective march.
Dazzling in structure and form, the film was shot using a 360-degree camera Williams describes as “a machine, a human and an alien.” Retrofitted for the cinema, the resulting images inhabit a woozy, porous space between reality, fantasy, waking life, and the oneiric. It’s an aesthetic owed both to the filmmaker’s singular vision and the various forms of representation saturating our field of vision — be they videogames, social media, or cinema as spectacle and art form — here democratized. As with its predecessor, Williams is unflinching about global woes of wealth disparity, environmental catastrophe, and exhaustion, but here imagines alternative ways of living, rethinking the vast possibilities of the world through new practices of seeing, hearing, and being together. – Andréa Picard
TIFF public screenings: September 8th and 9th
Monster (Kaibutsu) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda 是枝 裕和, Special Presentations, North American Premiere
*2023 Queer Palm winner* After a detour in France (The Truth, TIFF ’19) and South Korea (Broker, TIFF ’22), Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to his homeland of Japan to reconnect with the roots that nourished the deepest spirit of his cinema. His art thrives on subtle, delicate emotions, disregards the obvious, and explores the ordinariness and variables of the human experience.
Quiet and reserved Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) — no longer a kid, but not yet an adolescent — lost his father when he was a young child and lives with his mother (Sakura Andō). When he starts behaving strangely, obsessed with the idea his brain has been switched with a pig’s, the mother suspects his teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama) and calls a meeting with the school principal (Tanaka Yūko) only to face a wall of silence and stiff apologies. Someone must have put that idea in Minato’s head, but something doesn’t add up. Is Minato telling the truth, or is his professor innocent? Looking at the story from various points of view, in a Rashomon-inspired structure, reality changes and the actual subject becomes the hidden friendship between Minato and one of his schoolmates, often bullied by other kids.
A great storyteller of family dynamics, Kore-eda shows once again his unique ability to depict the inner world of children, unveiling uncomfortable realities with a natural and necessary tenderness. A milestone in his impressive body of work, Monster is marked by two major collaborations: one with co-screenwriter Sakamoto Yûji, and the other with the legendary musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who died last March, Monster being his last soundtrack. – Giovanna Fulvi
TIFF public screenings: September 10th and 11th
Strange Way of Life directed by Pedro Almodóvar, North American Premiere
Two lovers (Ethan Hawke, Pedro Pascal) reunite after 25 years apart, but secret ulterior motives threaten to spoil the relationship, in this emotional western from Pedro Almodóvar.
Strange Way of Life will play as part of TIFF’s In Conversation With… Pedro Almodóvar on Saturday September 9th at 3:30pm
Meteor directed by Atefeh Khademolreza, Short Cuts 2023 Programme 01
Combining a stunning visual aesthetic and acutely personal reflections, Atefeh Khademolreza delivers an expression of grief and defiance in the face of the repression suffered by women and the LGBTQ+ community in Iran.
TIFF public screenings: September 7th and 14th
A Bird Called Memory (Pássaro Memória) directed by Leonardo Martinelli, Short Cuts 2023 Programme 05
In Leonardo Martinelli’s lyrical and captivating film, a trans woman’s poetic quest for a missing bird helps transform an urban space from treacherous to transcendent.
TIFF public screenings: September 11th and 15th
The 48th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival takes place Thursday, September 7th – 17th, 2023. Tickets are on sale now at tiff.net.
Compiled by James Kleinmann. Film descriptions courtesy of TIFF.