Toronto: Fest’s First 72 Hours Highlighted by New Oscar Frontrunner ‘Fabelmans,’ Clintons and Academy Chiefs

Toronto: Fest’s First 72 Hours Highlighted by New Oscar Frontrunner ‘Fabelmans,’ Clintons and Academy Chiefs

Fifteen years after I first came to the Toronto International Film Festival and saw Juno, Michael Clayton, Eastern Promises, Into the Wild and The Savages, among other excellent films, I’m happy, as always, to be back at the best fest north of the border, and hopeful, as always, to match the high bar set by my first visit to it. Rather than rush to file separate write-ups of every noteworthy thing that I see and hear while on the ground here, at the cost of missing other noteworthy things, I’ve decided to file a dispatch every few days addressing a bunch of stuff. This initial piece covers the fest’s first three days.

* * *

After flying in on Wednesday morning (my seatmate on the flight from L.A. was none other than the NBA legend Dwayne Wade, who was accompanying his wife, the actress Gabrielle Union), festival screenings got underway on Thursday evening. I caught both the official opening night film, Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker Sally El-Hosaini’s The Swimmers (Netflix) and its opening night film of the Discovery sidebar, Elegance Bratton’s feature directorial debut The Inspection (A24).

The Swimmers dramatizes the true story of two young sisters, Yusra Mardini and Sarah Mardini (played impressively by actual sisters Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa, respectively), who fled war-torn Syria for Europe, enduring terrible hardships — but also accomplishing remarkable things — along the way. The well-made and deeply moving film received a four-minute standing ovation at the Princess of Wales Theatre (a strange place to be on the night of Queen Elizabeth II’s death). I imagine that it will do quite well on Netflix but probably won’t factor much into the awards race given, among other things, its inexplicably low Rotten Tomatoes score, and the streamer’s plethora of higher-profile priorities.

As for The Inspection, which became the first TIFF film ever to play at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, I think nominations are a real possibility, especially for its impressive lead actor Jeremy Pope. The 30-year-old — heretofore best known for landing two Tony nominations in one year, 2019, for Choir Boy and Ain’t Too Proud, and an Emmy nomination in 2020 for Hollywood — plays a character based on Bratton, who was thrown out of his religious mother’s home and life for being gay, and wound up joining the Marine Corps, where he faced additional cruelty. Supporting standouts include Bokeem Woodbine as a Marines drill sergeant (think Louis Gossett, Jr.’s Oscar-winning part in An Officer and a Gentleman) and the aforementioned Gabrielle Union as the mom (think Mo’Nique’s Oscar-winning part in Precious, but with fewer scenes in which to shine).

* * *

Friday, for me, was highlighted by the chance to meet briefly with former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea Clinton, two of the three principals (along with Sam Branson) of HiddenLight Productions, ahead of the world premiere of one of the production company’s first projects, Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s In Her Hands (Netflix). The documentary feature, which the Clintons introduced at TIFF Bell Lightbox (receiving a lengthy standing ovation upon taking the stage), chronicles two years in the life of Zarifa Ghafari, an Afghan woman who became the youngest of the country’s few female mayors, risking everything to fight for a better future for her beloved homeland. This doc — like another that I caught in Telluride, Matthew Heineman’s Retrograde — captures, in a way that news reports never could, just how frightening and devastating the collapse of Afghanistan was for that nation’s champions of freedom and equal opportunity.

That same cinema was soon thereafter occupied by Taylor Swift and a lucky few of her many fans who wanted to see Swift’s All Too Well: The Short Film on a big screen and her in conversation with TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey. But I headed over to Roy Thomson Hall for the world premiere of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King (Sony), which was produced by and stars Oscar winner Viola Davis. (The dynamic duo were featured on the cover and profiled inside of this week’s issue of THR.) The film, which was inspired by the true story of Black women warriors in 18th and 19th century Africa and was raucously received in the room, has been likened by some to Gladiator and others to Black Panther. I expect that it will do well at the box office (it opens Thursday), and it certainly boasts enough strong performances — especially those of Davis, Thuso Mbedu (The Underground Railroad), Lashana Lynch (from the MCU and No Time to Die) and Sheila Atim (Bruised) — to make a run at the best ensemble SAG Award nom, at the very least.

I closed my Friday by returning to Roy Thomson Hall for the world premiere of Gabe Polsky’s period piece western adaptation of John Edward Williams’s 1960 novel Butcher’s Crossing (Saban), which stars Nicolas Cage as a 19th-century buffalo hunter whose greed jeopardizes the safety of his hunting party. Polsky is best known for his excellent sports documentaries — Red Army, Red Penguins and In Search of Greatness — but here applies his fascination with skill and ambition, as well as the environment, for a narrative tale reminiscent of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And Polsky, a protégé of Werner Herzog, has found a similarly daring eccentric in Cage, who clearly relished his part. (During a post-screening Q&A, Cage revealed that he based it on Michael Jordan and Marlon Brando’s Capt. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now — quite a combination!)

* * *

Saturday morning began bright and early with a TIFF talk featuring the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ newly-minted CEO Bill Kramer and president Janet Yang, moderated by Rotten Tomatoes’ Jacqueline Coley, at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Glenn Gould Studios. Kramer and Yang have been making the rounds — they were recently at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, and will soon head to Copenhagen and London — for what Yang described as “a listening tour.” Kramer also noted it’s an attempt to show support for the return of film festivals and the theatrical moviegoing experience after COVID. Speaking a week ahead of an all-member Academy meeting, and with former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs in the audience, the duo went to bat for the Academy’s soon-to-be-enforced inclusion standards. “We’re not a passive participant in building a new industry,” Kramer said. They also teased the 95th Oscars ceremony (Kramer said the Academy has “some great legacy surprises” in store) and generally talked up their organization’s work on the 364 days of the year when it is not handing out gold statuettes at the Dolby Theatre.

On Saturday evening, I attended the world premiere, at the Royal Alexandra, of Causeway (A24/Apple), a return by Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence to the sort of low-budget indie with which she first made her name (think The Poker House and Winter’s Bone). Under the direction of theater vet/first-time feature filmmaker Lila Neugebauer, Lawrence plays a U.S. veteran of the war in Afghanistan who suffered a traumatic brain injury after a convoy in which she was traveling struck an IED, and who is now struggling to reacclimate to civilian life. Lawrence’s character meets a mechanic, played by Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta), who is broken in his own ways, and the two develop a bond. The film is probably a bit too slight to make a major dent in the awards race, but I would bet that it will draw a big audience on Apple TV+, where they will tune in because of Lawrence’s name and then be reminded that she is not just a movie star, but also a gifted actress.

Finally, after an all-too-brief stop at the annual Saturday night Sony Classics dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse in Yorkville — where attendees included The Son’s Florian Zeller, Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern, Living’s Bill Nighy, One Fine Morning’s Léa Seydoux and the Academy’s Kramer and Yang — I, and a host of others, excused ourselves to head back to the Princess of Wales for this edition of TIFF’s most highly-anticipated world premiere, Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical The Fabelmans (Universal). The start of the film was delayed a bit by the Q&A following the world premiere of Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix), which I’m told played like gangbusters and which I will catch soon. 

The Fabelmans, meanwhile, the first film that Spielberg has ever premiered at TIFF, blew the roof off of the venue. I’ve personally witnessed a number of explosive standing ovations at this festival — most recently following the world premiere of Green Book, and prior to that following the premieres of 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire and Juno — and this one was as enthusiastic as any and was cut short after two minutes only by Spielberg’s gesture to Cameron Bailey to proceed with the Q&A.

The film, which Spielberg co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, is certainly the master’s most personal outing yet. Sweet, smart and decidedly funny, it paints a portrait of Spielberg’s childhood and young adulthood — being raised by two very different parents, falling in love with moviemaking, facing anti-Semitism, breaking into the business, etc. — that is almost entirely faithful to the historical record. His life has previously been recounted in a 1999 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, a 2011 Cowboys & Aliens interview (don’t watch this one before watching the film), a 2012 60 Minutes segment, the 2017 HBO documentary Spielberg and my own 2015 Awards Chatter podcast interview with him.

Something of a cross between Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, only better, it features standout performances from young Gabriel LaBelle as Steven ‘Stevie’ Spielberg, or, rather, Sam ‘Sammie’ Fabelman; Michelle Williams as his mother; Paul Dano as his father; Seth Rogen as his “uncle”; and Judd Hirsch as his great-uncle. During a post-screening Q&A, Spielberg said, “This film is, for me, a way of bringing my mom and dad back, and it also brought my sisters closer to me than I ever thought possible. And, for that alone, it was worth making.” (Spielberg’s sisters were in the audience.)

I can see a world in which each of the aforementioned performers is Oscar-nominated (Hirsch would set a record with a nom coming 42 years after his only prior nom, for Ordinary People), but I cannot see a world in which Williams is not nominated. The performance by the actress, to whom Spielberg first reached out after being blown away by her all-time performance in 2010’s Blue Valentine, would be impressive even if one knew nothing about Spielberg’s actual mother, Leah Adler. But for anyone who ever met her — as I did on several occasions at The Milky Way, the kosher restaurant she ran in West L.A. — it is eerie how much Williams nailed her distinct look and joie de vivre. And I think that when all is said and done, Williams, who attended Saturday’s premiere despite being nearly nine months pregnant, may finally take home an Oscar.

As for the film itself? It is, at least for now, the one to beat in the best picture race.

PS: There is a memorable cameo late in The Fabelmans, and I can report that it was made possible by none other than the aforementioned Laura Dern. I was seated beside Dern at the Sony Classics dinner ahead of the screening of The Fabelmans, which we began discussing, and Dern acknowledged that it was she who connected Spielberg, one of her cinematic godfathers, with another, who shall remain nameless here, to make that cameo possible. So thank you, Laura Dern!