Three Fall Focus Films

IFF Boston’s Fall Focus is a counterpart to their main film festival in late April/early May (in my opinion the best in the area.) Since this offshoot began about 7 or 8 years back, I’ve caught titles there such as Anomalisa, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Cold War and Shoplifters. After an online-only edition in 2020 and my skipping it last year, it was a treat to return. Of the eleven films playing over four days (plus two bonus titles afterwards), I saw these three.

WOMEN TALKING

Sarah Polley’s return to directing after a decade carries almost ridiculously high expectations due to her previous, consistently strong body of work (Away From HerTake This WaltzStories We Tell) and all the awards season hype already showered upon this new film, which Polley adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel. Happily, Women Talking mostly meets them.

Set in a remote, rural, unnamed religious community (though Mennonite seems most likely), it revolves around an emergency, clandestine meeting among about a dozen of its women. Upon discovery that some of their men are drugging and raping them, they debate whether all the women should stay and fight back or leave the settlement with their younger children. It takes place in the near-present, though with the addition of an unlikely musical cue it could reasonably be any time since the late 1960’s; it also leaves open the possibility that it could even be in the near (or remote) future.

Much of it is exactly what the title promises: the women process the dilemma before them, discussing and arguing at length the implications of what courses of action are available to them. If this sounds dry and overly, well, talky, it’s visually far less static and isolated than something like last year’s (admittedly great) Mass. Polley not only sculpts dialogue to ebb and flow naturally like a good screenplay should, she also comprehends the value of opening up this world cinematically when the time is right for it. As the camera moves around and sometimes away from the barn where much of the action occurs, one can usually sense Polley’s hand as an additional unseen character right beside the women, reacting to and often enhancing what transpires.

The superb ensemble cast includes indie-friendly stars (Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy), Canadian stalwarts (Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod), revered veterans (Judith Ivey and in a smaller role, Frances McDormand) and Ben Whishaw as the sole on-screen adult male, a sympathetic school teacher asked to take minutes of the meeting (most of the women there are not taught to read and write.)

As the women work their way towards decisive action, the film accumulates considerable power, laying out what’s at stake for these characters, illustrating their turmoil (but never in an exploitative way) and placing it in a larger context that strives to be universally applicable. Occasionally, the story oversteps, simplifying logistical concerns for actions taken; the final section also drags a bit, reiterating ideas and emotional beats already touched upon. However, those are minor missteps. The world Polley depicts is contained to the point of being restrictive; Women Talking, with great catharsis and reasoning explains with artful clarity as to why this is damaging and what future generations can do to avoid succumbing to such a closed-off, incomplete life. (4.5 out of 5)

BROKER

After a brief sojourn in France (The Truth), director Hirokazu Kore-eda made this movie in South Korea rather than his home country of Japan, purportedly so he could work with the actor Song Kang-ho (he was most recently the patriarch in Parasite.) As with its predecessor, the shift in locale does not mean any departure in style or tone, though some parts of Broker might comprise his most overtly comedic work in years.

The plot, however, is the stuff of drama and suspense. Two men, Sang-hyun (Song) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) run an illegal business in Busan where they steal abandoned infants from a church’s drop-off box and sell them on the black market. It works swimmingly until So-young (singer/songwriter IU), a teenage mother in the process of dropping off her own baby discovers their scheme and joins them to interview prospective adoptive parents. Meanwhile, two detectives (one played by Kore-eda alumnus Doona Bae, now middle-aged but still fabulous) sit in their unmarked car and watch this all play out.

Although Broker won the Jury Prize at Cannes, it isn’t on the same level as Kore-eda’s very best work (my top four, chronologically: After LifeNobody KnowsStill WalkingShoplifters.) Actually, it’s slightly flabby (maybe 10-20 minutes too long) and although he retains a knack for getting amusing (but not irritating!) performances out of children, this film’s humor and pathos do not always sit comfortably alongside each other. Of course, as veteran auteurs go, Kore-eda is still in a class of his own. He may be relying on variations on familiar themes, but no one else matches his sustained comfort and nimble touch with depicting makeshift families and finding those ingenuous, unforced grace moments that co-exist with the mundane. (4 out of 5)

ARMAGEDDON TIME

The latest from writer/director James Gray is almost nakedly autobiographical. His 11-year-old alter ego, Paul (Banks Repeta) lives in Queens, 1980 (as Gray did), the younger son of a middle-class Jewish-American family whose grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) arrived at Ellis Island near the turn of the 20th century. A would-be artist prone to daydreaming with little traditional work ethic in him, Paul befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American classmate who was left back the previous year and is barely tolerated by their public-school teacher. His friendship with Johnny doesn’t so much open up a new world for Paul as it gradually puts into perspective his own place in the world and how his race and class afford him privilege; meanwhile, his grandfather helps him to understand the complexities of bearing such privilege along with the moral and ethical implications at risk as a result.

Gray gets the period look and feel exactly right but sometimes struggles with other details. Apart from Hopkins, Paul’s family can come off as stereotypical-verging-on-cartoonish; even worse, Johnny’s barely a character at all, a sacrificial lamb for Paul to learn from. The insertion of two real-life figures related to a former president also feels a little clumsy, reiterating the overall point by practically banging it into the ground. On the other hand, the film would fall apart without Repeta’s naturalistic performance; he’s certainly one of the more plausible 11-year-old film protagonists, itself a tough age to depict in that Paul is still an innocent child to a degree but also easily corruptible. Of the few Gray films I’ve seen (Ad AstraThe Immigrant) this is somehow the most satisfying but also the most flawed, which frustrates–I repeatedly sensed that he’s just too close to the material even though it’s undeniably his story to tell. (3 out of 5)