Following last year’s Charcoal (Carvão), Brazilian filmmaker Carolina Markowicz returns to TIFF for the world premiere of her captivating sophomore feature Toll (Pedágio) and to receive the festival’s Emerging Talent Award.
Luis Armando Arteaga’s intimate, delicately attentive cinematography immediately draws us into the world of single mother, Suelen (Maeve Jinkings, reuniting with Markowicz after Charcoal), who wakes up early to light a virility candle for her only child, seventeen-year-old Tiquinho (S Kauan Alvarenga), in the hope that God will make him straight. Running late for her shift as a tollbooth cashier, she hitches a ride in the back of an open truck, wedged in between a load of gas canisters. On her morning coffee break, she’s embarrassed to show her self-righteous best friend Telma (a wonderful Aline Marta Maia, who also starred in Charcoal) her son’s latest lip-synch video to Billie Holiday’s “It Had to Be You”, as he promotes cosmetics on social media. She’s mortified to discover that not only has Telma already seen the video, but everyone at work has been commenting about it behind Suelen’s back in a WhatsApp group that she’s not part of.
There’s a gorgeous visual touch when things first shift from Suelen to Tiquinho’s perspective, as we take in a pink hued view of the industrial Brazilian city where they live, Cubatão, and realize from the next shot that we’ve been seeing the world from the teen’s POV, through his literal rose-tinted spectacles as he walks home form school. As the narrative unfolds the perspective continues to move between the two protagonists, a balance that proves to be effective in allowing us to connect with both characters without authorial judgement. Cubatão makes for an atmospheric setting of striking contrasts; situated in an expansive valley filled with chimneys emitting vapour and flames, surrounded by lush green hills. This is captured with an appealingly grainy quality, and the muted earth tones of Suelen’s world contrast with the vibrancy of Tiquinho’s life, especially his candy coloured social media videos and the character’s flamboyant (at least in Suelen’s eyes) wardrobe.
Although there’s a familiar tension of a teen on the cusp of adulthood living at home, Tiquinho clearly loves his mother and he endearingly and good-naturedly shrugs off her disapproval. When she complains about him wearing a pink coat to school, the next time he goes out of the house he simply carries it with him, presumably to put it on out of her sight. Despite her displeasure though, there’s no sense that Tiquinho has any internalized homophobia as he begins to forge his way in the world, self-assured and uninhibited by how he might be perceived. While Suelen’s concern about her son being gay appears to be largely driven by what everyone else thinks—society, the Church, her work colleagues—rather than any deep-seated homophobia of her own.
When the renowned Pastor Isac (Isac Graça) brings his expensive, travelling “conversion therapy” course to Cubatão, Telma urges Suelen that enrolling Tiquinho is her only course of action and her last hope in the final few months before he turns 18, when apparently any chance of making him straight will be lost. Rich with hypocrisy, Telma is a regular churchgoer celebrating nearly forty years of marriage, who frequently picks up random men she meets while on the job at the tollbooth and has sex with them in the bushes. Something she says is between her and God. The warmth that Aline Marta Maia brings to Telma beautifully plays against the piousness of the character. Meanwhile Suelen is happy to overlook the fact that her boyfriend Arauto (T Thomás Aquino) is a criminal, until she finds that he’s been stashing stolen goods in her home. Before long though she offers to help him target wealthy drivers that pass through her tollbooth in order to cover the exorbitant cost of Tiquinho’s conversion therapy.
The tension builds effectively as Suelen entangles herself in this criminal enterprise, but things aren’t sensationalized and there’s an engaging, everyday, matter-of-fact quality as the narrative unfolds that grounds the film. One of the most striking and appealing aspects of Toll is its distinct tone, which deftly balances the restrained drama of Suelen’s reckless criminal activities and an unforced thread of comedy that runs throughout the film. There’s the observational humour in Suelen’s alarm at anything about her son that reads as gay, and her son’s nonchalance at her concerns and the pleasure he takes in expressing himself freely. The humour becomes more outlandish in the conversion therapy workshop scenes. There are several particularly funny moments as Pastor Isac inflicts some bizarre exercises—as absurd as anything in But I’m a Cheerleader—on those in his charge, such as the male participants being forced to reshape a plasticine penis into a vagina, and listen to pseudoscientific explanations about why the Devil has surrounded the anus with bacteria. In recent years, under far-right President Bolsonaro, certain Brazilian politicians including Bolsonaro himself have been invested in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, some of which has clearly inspired Pastor Isac’s workshops, and makes Toll resonate strongly given similar actions by some lawmakers in the US.
Alvarenga, who appeared in Markowicz’s 2018 Queer Palm-winning short film The Orphan (O Órfão) is a delight as Tiquinho, bringing real sensitivity to his subtle and nuanced performance as he conveys the character’s emerging joie de vivre as he begins to fully embraces himself. Tiquinho radiates with light, at one point literally as he holds a lit hookah pipe while on a date with a guy he meets at conversion therapy, Rick (Caio Macedo). Jinkings is utterly compelling as Suelen, giving a absorbingly natural performance as a misguided mother apparently attempting to do what she thinks is best for her son, and it’s a pleasure to see these actors play off each other.
By James Kleinmann
Carolina Markowicz’s Toll (Pedágio) received its world premiere at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival TIFF 2023 continues until Sunday, September 17th, 2023. Tickets are on sale now at tiff.net.
Find more queer titles at TIFF 2023 in our LGBTQ+ highlights article.