TIFF Diary, Day 4: 'Lion,' 'A United Kingdom,' 'I Am Not Your Negro,' And More
Linda Holmes is filing dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival. These movies will see wider release in the coming months.
There is a kind of festival movie — global in its scope, broad in its lessons, stamped with the logo of The Weinstein Company — that announces its awards hunger with such zeal that skepticism comes easily. And Lion, directed by Garth Davis from a screenplay by Luke Davies, is such a film. It's an adaptation of Saroo Brierly's memoir about finding his mother in India (with an assist from Google Earth, which is the hook) 25 years after being separated from her and adopted by a white Australian couple in the late 1980s. It would have been easy for the film to fall into familiar traps, such as erasing Brierly's early life, or painting his Australian parents as saviors. It avoids those pitfalls, mostly.
Even though Saroo goes missing at five years old and is played by a movie star (Dev Patel) as an adult, fully the first 40 minutes are devoted to documenting his life at five years old, so that we understand that he came to be adopted through trauma and loss, and that his mother in India was loving and devoted to him. We watch his life with her and his siblings, and we see the sequence of events through which he becomes lost, winds up hundreds of miles away in Kolkata, and can't be returned by even well-meaning adults, since he can only provide his first name and can't give them the name of his hometown or the name of his mother. Young Sunny Pawar — the rare actor who richly deserves the "and introducing" credit he gets — plays young Saroo. He carries 40 minutes of story without any trouble at all, until the handoff to the reliable Patel, who here plays a confident, charismatic adult after a lot of eager-young-person roles. (It works for him.)
While some of the beats in this story, including Saroo's fear that he will hurt his Australian parents by searching for his Indian mother, are familiar, there's an honesty about how his adoption came to happen that's awfully refreshing. When his mother Sue, played by Nicole Kidman, tells Saroo's girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) how blessed she was to adopt two sons from India, the comment hangs in the air as it does because Lucy knows that while Sue feels blessed, her genuine joy and love for Saroo sits alongside an unimaginable loss for both him and his family at home. The film posits pretty straightforwardly that this happened to Saroo and his family because they were poor, and because India's system for dealing with lost children was so bad that getting him out of it by any means necessary was a higher priority than reuniting him with his mother. It allows his gratitude and his grief over the same series of events to exist alongside each other, as do the sense that his Australian parents are kind people and the sense that they may have failed to fully appreciate the implications of the way he came to them.
A United Kingdom
Seretse Khama became the first president of Botswana in 1966. But A United Kingdom finds him, as a prince played by David Oyelowo, about two decades earlier, in the late 1940s. He's studying in London when he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). They fall in love quickly, and their decision to marry upsets both her family in London and his uncle back home, who's been preparing him to become king and strenuously objects to his bringing a white British woman back to be queen of what was at that time a British protectorate called Bechuanaland. Britain is incensed as well, because South Africa doesn't want an interracial couple ruling so nearby during the imposition of apartheid, and Britain doesn't want trouble with South Africa. The complications of the Khamas' marriage played out for years in real life between Khama himself, the people of Bechuanaland and the British government, and A United Kingdom takes as its central thesis the high price that the couple was willing to pay to remain together.
Directed by Amma Asante (Belle), A United Kingdom is a pretty film, and Oyelowo and Pike are both very good. He gives a couple of fiery speeches about race and equality that reminded me a lot of watching him in Selma, but the romantic aspect of this story is much more prominent. While their love story is moving, the way it's centered makes the political and racial context feel too tidily resolved. It feels unfair to refer to a real-life story as perhaps a bit too pat, but the heavily romantic tone and some streamlining of a complex political story make it a little too conventional a love-conquers-all tale to be entirely satisfying.
I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck made this remarkable documentary from the unfinished manuscript of the book James Baldwin didn't finish before he died: a book tying together the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to tell the story of race in America. The narration is Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin's words from the book, accompanied by not only abundant archival footage of Baldwin speaking, but historical footage of all kinds: footage of the leaders he's talking about, the times he's chronicling, and the times he didn't live to see. Thus, Peck allows James Baldwin to narrate footage of Watts and photos of lynchings, but also to speak to Ferguson and Rodney King. The film treats Baldwin as not only a great writer but an enormously current one, capable of issuing warnings across decades that have yet to be heeded.
At the same time, Baldwin's focus was on the stories of Evers and King and Malcolm X, and the documentary does spend significant time inside the work they were doing and inside the worlds that they, and Baldwin, occupied in the 1960s and in the years when all three were killed. We hear from Baldwin, too, about Sidney Poitier's strange position as an unacknowledged sex symbol, about how differently black and white viewers perceived The Defiant Ones, about Bobby Kennedy, about despairing at the moral apathy he sensed from white Americans. The film represents an effort to allow Baldwin's writing on race to be laid against this century, this year, this month, this week, in part to argue that many of his fears have been realized. It's not a comforting film; it doesn't mean to be one. It's disturbing and sometimes frightening, but it's also thriling to spend this much time simply being in the company of Baldwin's words.
A slight little slip of a movie, Boundaries is a political satire that finds Besco, a fictional island nation off the east coast of Canada, negotiating with the Canadian government over the terms under which a mining company will be allowed to exploit Besco's resources. Director Chloe Robichaud is primarily interested in the three women most intensely involved in the negotiation: an American mediator (Emily VanCamp), Besco's president (Macha Grenon) and the Canadian government minister's young aide (Nathalie Doummar). All are trying to figure out exactly how they want to position themselves relative to their work and to their other obligations, whether to family or to principles.
It seems at times like Boundaries is about to get broader and sillier, but it never quite does. One of the things it plays fair about with politicking is how dull and plodding it can be, how it can lead nowhere, how a negotiation can collapse for reasons undisclosed by the parties. This is government as it happens in dull, poorly lit rooms with no press and no fanfare.
Just Not Married
The Toronto festival has a City To City program that brings films from a particular city, and this year, they come from Lagos, Nigeria. One is Just Not Married, which is billed here as a caper comedy, a distinction I'd call "part-true." Directed by Uduak-Obong Patrick, it's the story of Duke, a young man who's his ailing mother's one real joy, since his brother Victor (Obutu Roland) is just getting out of prison and mom will not forgive him for his crimes. Thus, she expects Duke to stay on the straight and narrow, which he decides he can't when he can't afford the medicine she needs. Duke comes up with a plan and he enlists Lati, his best friend, as well as Keji, a girl they both know. The plan is that they'll steal cars, and when they're getting away, Lati will drive, and Duke and Keji will pretend to be a newly married couple in the backseat. Duke has noticed that cars bedecked with "Just Married" ribbons don't tend to get pulled over or hassled, so it seems like a perfect way to hide in plain sight in a stolen car.
To the degree this is a caper movie, it's not a glam caper like Ocean's Eleven; it's a hustle caper like, for instance, Go. And here, there's a lot of focus on why that hustle is important in the first place. Duke is only turning to crime to help his mother, but does that make it okay? If Keji is just doing it for fun, is that worse? While there's some focus on staying a step ahead of the law and any bad guys you encounter and other realities of day-to-day scamming, there's a simultaneous telling of Duke's brother's difficulties finding work once he's served his time. Now he's trying to go straight and Duke is trying to get away with stealing cars. Can either succeed? Can both?
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.