Unless you spend most of your festival rolling the dice on first features and movies by largely unknown filmmakers, TIFF can be a lot like a weeklong version of that expectations-versus-reality scene from (500) Days Of Summer: Over and over again, you walk into a theater with a certain expectation, only to be confronted by the sometimes welcome, sometimes disappointing reality of what you see. I won’t expend many words on David Gordon Green’s Stronger (Grade: B-), starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, because it’s opening later this month, when we’ll review it proper. But given the awfulness of the trailer, and the generally dispiriting idea of this wild-card filmmaker doing another prestige award-season movie after Our Brand Is Crisis, it’s nice to report that Green, Gyllenhaal, and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany hit some grace notes—and plant the germ of some interesting ideas—en route to the expected lifting of spirits.
What’s weirder to report is that this mostly tasteful but unremarkable recovery drama is in about the same ballpark for me, preference-wise, as the new one by a current favorite filmmaker, Norway’s Joachim Trier. Expectations were not met there. Granted, Thelma (Grade: B-) is a change of pace for the director of Oslo, August 31st, and Louder Than Bombs: a supernatural coming-of-age story of the Raw variety, unfolding in mostly chronological order, albeit with a few flickers of flashback and a couple of dream sequences. The title character is a sheltered college freshman (Eili Harboe), studying in Oslo but still under the stern, long-distance supervision of her religious father. Thelma, as it turns out, is not your ordinary teenage girl, even beyond the severity of her upbringing; her first encounter with beautiful, confident classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins) ends with a seizure and a flock of birds descending upon the library where they meet. Stir strange feelings in this closeted Christian girl and stranger stuff happens.
As in his previous films, Trier remains sensitively attuned to the emotional wavelengths of young characters; as a queer campus love story, this at least has the right temperament. And though it features little of the dazzling formal gymnastics that dominated his expressive Louder Than Bombs, Thelma is seductively shot and edited. But Trier’s first foray into the fantastic—his college Carrie—gets stuck in an odd middle ground: It’s at once too metaphorically muddled and too dramatically straightforward. Do Thelma’s powers represent her deepest desires or the denial of those desires? The film doesn’t settle on one or the other, but the message comes through loud and clear: Trying to suppress who you really are can have catastrophic consequences. Which, duh.
Much more ambitious, in scope and ideas, is Lucrecia Martel’s mysterious, confounding Zama (Grade: B+), about an 18th-century functionary stranded in South America at the behest of the Spanish crown. The first shot tells us much of what we need to know about Don Diego De Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho): Standing in full regalia at the edge of a beachfront, staring out into the water, he strikes the perfect image of the imperialist invader, sticking out crassly against the natural world he’s conquering, while also conveying a kind of pitiful longing—a desire to escape the very land where he’s planted his flag. An ineffectual bureaucrat plunked down at a Paraguay outpost he can’t wait to escape, Zama spends most of Zama being ignored by his superiors, mocked by the locals, and rejected by a noblewoman (Lola Dueñas) who kills her own time on the sweltering coast provoking, then rebuffing his advances.
It’s been nine years since Martel’s last movie, the beguiling The Headless Woman, and she spent much of the interim just trying to get this offbeat period piece off the ground; 16 production companies from all over the world ended up chipping in. The effort shows, in the right way: Why shouldn’t a film about thwarted goals possess the phantom impression of its own setbacks and delays? Zama, despite its setting, isn’t such a radical departure for Martel; it preserves her talent for tracking an individual through chaotic social spheres (see also: the overcrowded hotel backdrop of her The Holy Girl), as well as the perplexing way that she seems to deemphasize the significance of key moments, so that scenes that advance the (loose, shaggy) plot carry no more weight than ones that exist simply to observe the environment. That’s perfect for a state of stasis: Since nothing Zama does seems to get him any closer to the transfer he so dearly desires, it’s appropriate that every scene would unfold with the same glancing ambivalence.
In its own befuddling manner (this is the type of movie where it can take several encounters just to suss out the relationship between the characters), Zama is a kind of comedy of errors. When the magistrate is unceremoniously booted from his digs, he ends up having to relocate to the worst hotel in Asunción: a shithole that even the proprietors believe is haunted. In another priceless ladling of insult atop injury, Zama learns that his rival in the area has been transferred exactly where he wants to go, and his silent, pathetic agony is punctuated by a stray lama that wanders into the room, mocking his misery by its very presence. Zama (and Zama) eventually does escape this purgatory, only to wander into a new one: a hopeless manhunt through the jungle. It turns the film into a bizarre relative of James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z, only with the prevailing tone switched from “Quixotic” to “Kafkaesque”—even the call of adventure doesn’t free the man from his humiliating station. But don’t cry too hard for Zama: As in The Headless Woman, this is a film as much about the marginalized people (literally enslaved in this case) glimpsed around the edges of the frame as it is about the distress of the figure of privilege at its center. Which is to say, maybe purgatory isn’t hot enough for a colonialist.
Word from Venice was that Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) had made a movie about a boy and his horse. Technically, that’s true of Lean On Pete (Grade: B+), which does indeed concern a teenage lad (Charlie Plummer) who starts doing odd jobs for a grizzled race-horse owner (Steve Buscemi, also starring as Nikita Khrushchev in Armando Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin here at Toronto) and ends up bonding with one of his new boss’s aging meal tickets. This is not a Black Stallion riff, however; it becomes increasingly clear that the horse, Lean On Pete, is a kind of living, breathing crutch for young Charley—something for this lonely kid, whose home life dramatically worsens as the movie progresses, to invest all his emotional energy into. An unvarnished neorealist trudge, Lean On Pete unfolds unsparingly and unsentimentally; I grimly admired the crushing way that it sidesteps romantic baloney at almost every turn, including subverting whatever assumptions we might have about the ultimate role Buscemi’s surrogate father figure might play. What we’re watching, ultimately, is less “boy and his horse” than “boy and the one emblem of purpose keeping him from tumbling into an abyss of despair.” That’s not what a logline might suggest, but anyone who’s seen the devastating 45 Years should have some idea what they’re getting themselves into. Sometimes, expectations are met.