NOTE: This article is a combination of a two-part article released earlier this week via the DIASPORA Newsletter. To gain advance access to DIASPORA features, subscribe to the newsletter by clicking here.
After many films, events, parties, reconnecting with industry folks and connecting with new ones as well as a dope dinner at the Michelin star restaurant Quetzal, I have returned from the Toronto International Film Festival with many a tale to tell.
With a dual strike hovering over the industry, the fest was fairly tame. It was still bustlin’, but the energy was different. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to see the talent there that was able to support their projects (they had waivers so they were allowed so don’t come for them!)
We can’t get enough of Dicks!
One big premiere was that of Dicks: The Musical from Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp based on their off-Broadway musical Fucking Identical Twins.
As A24’s first movie musical, Dicks is right on brand. First and foremost, there’s a song in the movie called “All Love Is Love” which was originally titled “God is a Faggot”.
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Dicks is the best chaotic fuckery ever. It’s offensive, lewd, absurd, and will make the Catholic gag. Coming from the “School of John Waters Storytelling”, Dicks skewers Hollywood musical tropes and makes itself laugh and doesn’t give a fuck if you participate because it is having a damn good time with or without you.
To see Bowen Yang play God is queer representation at its finest and watching Megan Thee Stallion rapping “suck my dick” while walking men on leashes like dogs is everything — it’s an Oscar-worthy song (Eat that Ken!).
And of course, Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane continue to contribute to their gorgeous legacy and deserve a Pulitzer for playing two of the best parents in cinematic history.
With Dicks, Jackson and Sharp have started their journey as culty superstars. Much like Sewer Boys, they are queer culture. I would be happy if they just made more absurd musicals named after body parts. Dicks introduced me to some of the most delightfully demented things that I never knew I needed.
Origin will get people talkin’
Ava DuVernay’s Origin, based on the book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson has one whirlwind of a journey.
Origin follows Isabel (played with a quietly powerful and beautiful urgency by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as she travels the world and explores the connective tissue between racism and class. Along the way, she struggles with her own personal battles as she explores a question that would soon become a culturally defining book.
Origin takes the author’s emotional journey and turns it into a beautifully sculpted intimate — but bold film that will spark conversations — and perhaps some debates that may help us understand each other more. And maybe that’s good.
Colman Domingo is king of TIFF
Colman Domingo is the MVP of TIFF.
The Emmy-winning actor received the TIFF Tribute Performer Award at the fest. The award recognizes an overall body of exceptional work of a performer and he joins past honorees Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kate Winslet, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, and Joaquin Phoenix. (I don’t think I have to name the trend here).
He was also there for the premiere of the amazing feature Sing Sing directed by Greg Kwedar. Sing Sing spotlights a theatre troupe that finds escape from the realities of incarceration through the creativity of putting on a play. The movie is based on the real-life arts rehabilitation program founded at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and includes real-life performers from the program.
Sing Sing is cathartic and between this and Rustin (which was also at TIFF), Domingo is a power player when it comes to award season as well as an actor who is entering a new era that will amplify his talent. The film is an emotional gut punch that puts you through it and Domingo rules the screen while helping everyone else shine along with him.
As for Rustin, Domingo wasn’t able participate in the Rustin festivities because of the strike of it all. The George C. Wolfe-directed story about the real life Bayard Rustin who was the key player in organizing the March on Washington, also told an equally powerful story, with Domingo proving that he is probably one of the few men who can play that titular role. He carried that movie to the credits.
Lulu Wang’s Expats makes a bold debut
Lulu Wang’s six-part limited series Expats based on Janice Y. K. Lee’s novel The Expatriates isn’t set to make its debut on Prime Video until 2024, but TIFF attendees were treated to an episode of the series — but not the pilot. Instead, they made a bold move and premiered the penultimate feature length episode.
The series stars Nicole Kidman, Ji-young Yoo, Sarayu Blue, Brian Tee, and Jack Huston and is set in 2014 Hong Kong. The series follows three American women—Margaret (Kidman), Hilary (Blue), and Mercy (Yoo) and how their lives intersect after a sudden family tragedy.
Debuting this standalone episode was a risk, but it paid it off. The episode quietly interrogates how we treat each other and how navigate loneliness. The episode, filled with incredible Filipino actors, was filled with phenomenal performers with Kidman and Blue leading the charge.
If there is one movie that everyone saw at TIFF, it was the Bulgari “Magnificence Never Ends” ad starring Zendaya and Anne Hathaway directed by Paolo Sorrentino ( creator of the HBO miniseries The New Pope) that played before each and every movie that screened at the fest. It was definitely giving Nicole Kidman “heartbreak feels good in a place like this” energy because it was definitely a crowd pleaser — but not quite as camp.
After the Long Live Montero docu, you’ll love Lil Nas X even more
After watching Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero, I am far more interested in him as a person — and that’s not shade. That’s testimony to the filmmaking skills of the documentary’s directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel.
Shot during the titular tour, the documentary, which follows the culture-defining artist, is a joyful and insightful celebration of a young artist that is having a dope ass time while exploring who he wants to be as a human and an artist. The film keeps its head out of the clouds and is for the most part, grounded, as it doesn’t necessarily put Lil Nas X on a pedestal. Instead, we are kind of learning with him as he just tries to figure things out as he continues to rise to fame.
Roger Ross Williams is having a moment
Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams is known for acclaimed documentary works like Music by Prudence, Life, Animated and Love to Love You, Donna Summer. He recently made his feature directorial debut with Cassandro starring Gael Garcia Bernal, which is currently in theaters and drops on Prime Video September 22.
He directed episodes of Hulu’s The 1619 Project and also has the docuseries The Super Models debuting on Apple TV+ later this year. But he wasn’t at TIFF for any of that — he was there for Stamped From The Beginning based on Ibram X. Kendi’s book.
The documentary is a mindful mix of information that is enlightening and triggering. It packs a lot in 90 minutes about the (mis)treatment of the Black community and demands your attention no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel.
Stamped From the Beginning tells brutal truths about white supremacy and it’s a film that would definitely be banned in Florida — which means it’s doing something right.
Elliot Page gets Close To You
While some movies aggressively interrogate queerness, Dominic Savage‘s Close To You infuses it into family dynamics to take us on this hyper empathetic journey where we know everything is not OK and sometimes we have to be fine with it even if it does leave scars.
Elliot Page delivers a wildly personal and raw performance. Close To You can rip your heart out at one moment and quickly turn to comfort you with a cautious warmth. And yes, I cried. A lot.
Devery Jacobs thrives in Backspot
When people ask me what movie I really enjoyed at TIFF, I usually mention Backspot first because I am all in when it comes to movies about competitive cheerleading. It felt like an indie movie from 1999 or the early 2000s — I loved it.
Executive produced by the aforementioned Elliot Page, Backspot follows the wildly driven cheerleader Riley (Devery Jacobs) who strives for perfection with the sport — to an extreme. When she and her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) are selected for an elite cheer squad led by a laser-focused coach (Evan Rachel Wood) and her assistant (Thomas Antony Olajide) the pressure intensifies.
As D.W. Waterson’s feature directorial debut, it lives at this wonderful intersection of a wide-eyed debut and unapologetic auteur. Devery Jacobs is phenomenal. Her commitment is astounding while Evan Rachel Wood is the perfect severe power lesbian cheerleading coach and I didn’t know I needed. Also, special shout out to 40 Days and 40 Nights icon Shannyn Sossamon, who plays Riley’s mom.
Next Goal Wins is giving Coach Carter but in American Samoa and with soccer
Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins is a feel-good, crowd pleaser. Based on the real-life American Samoa soccer team, it’s giving Remember the Titans and other inspirational , “the underdog wins” sport movie vibes.
Next Goal Wins gives a voice to the voiceless and empowers a culture and a people — specifically Fa’afafine people. Representation is a process and Next Goal Wins is a part of that.
One campy movie and one “qamp” movie
Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk‘s slasher pic Hell of a Summer is a good ass time. It’s a classic fun-filled horror camp movie that tinkers enough with tropes to make it feel fresh enough. For me, MVP’s were Fred Hechinger as “head camp counselor Jason” as well as Bryk, who also played puka shell clad himbo Bobby.
Making its world premiere at TIFF, Jen Markowitz’s documentary Summer Qamp introduces us to Camp fYrefly in rural Alberta. It’s a a space where queer, non-binary, and trans teens get to just be teens with counselors and peers who can relate to their experience ― and it has all the joys of camp.
There’s a kindness and sweetness to the documentary that is just makes you smile. The docu spotlights a new generation in a way that made me say “the kids are gonna be alright”.
Fawzia Mirza’s Queen of My Dreams starring Amrit Kaur is a gorgeous, romantic confection of a film that celebrates the beauty of Pakistan, queerness, and the one-of-a-kind bond between mothers and daughters.
And for the record: I stated my opinion about the movie before I knew I was thanked in the end credits!
Cord Jefferson’s feature directorial debut American Fiction attempts to explore and navigate identity-driven narratives and art as a commodity.
Based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, American Fictions tries to tackle a lot which is very ambitious. As we go on this journey with Monk (played exceptionally by Jefferey Wright), we interrogate a lot of questions about the theses of identity-driven narratives and art as a commodity. The adaptation explores good ideas about identity and presentation of identity that will be hot topics for discussion and debate.
I adored Sophie Dupuis’s drama Solo mostly because of the film’s lead, Théodore Pellerin who owns the screen with panache as an up and coming Montreal drag queen, Simon.
When he becomes romantically involved with fellow drag performer Olivier (Félix Maritaud), the two start two be a double act. All the while, Simon is navigating his relationship with his estranged mother Claire (Anne-Marie Cadieux), a famed opera singer.
Solo is the romantic drag queen drama you didn’t know you needed.
TIFF was all about loneliness, outcasts, the misunderstood, and healing
After all that the world has been through since the 2020 pandemic, it’s safe to say that many of us are all in our feelings and trying to make sense of life, this world and our existence — and that’s what TIFF was giving this year.
Many films (and one series) on my viewing list had characters who were outcasts or misunderstood people. Many were going through some sort of life change that hinged on healing and breaking down barriers.
With Meredith Hama-Brown’s debut feature Seagrass starring Ally Maki and Luke Roberts try to save their fractured biracial marriage at a couples’ therapy retreat while Sally El Hosaini and James Krishna Floyd’s Unicorns shows us the unlikely romance between a very blue collar guy (Ben Hardy) and a very queer drag queen (Jason Patel) as a drag queen, giving a little bit of modern flair to as story we have seen before.
Bad Boy, an Israeli series co-created by Ron Leshem, the screenwriter and producer of the Israeli series upon which HBO’s Euphoria is based, and Hagar Ben-Asher, made its world premiere at TIFF and the series was giving an elevated Euphoria energy with the charming lead Guy Menaster playing an arrogant teen with a heart of gold navigating brutal juvenile detention . It’s beautifully devastating.
Chelsea McMullan’s Swan Song spotlights the National Ballet of Canada’s 2022 production of Swan Lake, directed and staged by the legendary Karen Kain, who is not only the company’s artistic director, but famously debuted the ballet with them in 1971. Swan Song follows this journey as we see the production from various points of view from members of the company. From inception to pandemic to curtain call, Swan Song is quite a story about honoring tradition but looking forward to the future.
When I saw that Sorry/Not Sorry was about Louis CK and all the sexual harassment allegations surrounding him. Turns out, I probably did need to be reminded about how horrid Louis CK was and probably still is. Filmmakers Caroline Suh and Cara Mones use the film as a platform to shine a thoughtful spotlight on the women who spoke publicly about his behavior, with a hyper focus on their experiences.
Till next year TIFF!