Sunday, September 7, 2014

TIFF 2014: Dreaming Big

Posted By on Sun, Sep 7, 2014 at 11:11 AM

One of my habits when I end up consuming nonstop movies over a 10-day stretch is to bundle a number of the films into similar themes: foreign films, documentaries, action thrillers, costume dramas, political potboilers, first-time directors... you get the picture. So I was pleasantly surprised (for the most part) when I sat down to watch a number of films centered on young people. And I have good news to report—at least on two of them. Unfortunately the third (and it was the one that tried the hardest) was the most disappointing.

First the good news:

Boychoir tiptoed into the Toronto International Film Festival with very little splash. It slipped in among the shadows as big-budget Oscar bait hogged most of the opening weekend's limelight. But Boychoir was absolutely lovely, and if my instincts are right, it will be a wonderful holiday season release later this year. My sense is that audiences will embrace its optimism, good taste and of course its music—who can deny angelic voices singing Handel's Messiah at Christmastime? Boychoir tells the story of Stet, an 11-year-old with the instincts of an alley cat but the voice of an angel. His absent father pays an exorbitant amount of money to a private academy just to get the boy out of sight. But Stet finds a harmony he never knew existed and becomes a member of one of the most exclusive boy choirs in the nation. Boychoir stars Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Kevin McHale (Glee) and a nice cameo from the much-missed Debra Winger. I really tried to push away much of the movie's sentimentality, but in the end, I was won over because it hit so many lovely high notes.

X + Y is another fine film about kids. This one's from Britain and stars Asa Butterfield, the delicious Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and the always fine Eddie Marsan (Ray Donovan). Butterfield, who was so great in 2011's Hugo, plays Nathan, diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. But he's also a math prodigy, and with the help of a tutor (who struggles with his own multiple sclerosis), Nathan finds his way to representing Britain at the International Mathematics Olympiad, where he also finds the first love of his life, a Chinese girl representing her own nation. Again, this film lays on the sentimentality pretty thick, but the audience I watched it with loved X + Y, and I agree wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, the news is not good for Men, Women & Children, the latest film from Jason Reitman, who is one of my favorite young directors (Up in the Air, Juno). But I think Reitman took on a fool's errand by trying to weave yet another cautionary tale about how technology rules our lives. Yes, yes, we all know. Too many people bury their noses in their smartphones rather than taking the risk of engaging with an in-person conversation. Unfortunately, this story has been told too many times, and Reitman tries to set up his thesis by painting too many stereotypes: There's the frustrated married couple (Rosemarie Dewitt and Adam Sandler), the way-over-the-top protective mom (Jennifer Garner), the inappropriate mom (Jennifer Greer) and way too many sex-starved teens. In the end, it's a very sad story that is quite forgettable.

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