One of the most rewarding parts of film festivals is the discovery of new voices. The joy of coming upon young women who are speaking up and speaking for themselves is unparalleled, because it is in their work that you find the plainest, most unvarnished truth about the human condition.
This year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, pared-down and virtual because of the pandemic, threw up a bunch of interesting new female debut directors, refreshing the coming-of-age trope. In 2017, the festival began its unique Share Her Journey programme, which is committed to encouraging women in front of and behind the camera, and in the last three years, the numbers of female film professionals supported by the five-year programme has grown exponentially.
The Indian ambassadors of the programme are women with a global footprint: the Toronto-based Deepa Mehta, one of the founder members, was co-producer on Validation, a horror film made special by its female gaze. Priyanka Chopra Jonas, whose The Sky Is Pink was part of the official selection in 2019, conducted an engaging Instagram conversation with Cameron Bailey, the Artistic Director of the festival. Rima Das, a constant presence at the festival who couldn’t be there this year because of travel restrictions, got her international breakthrough with the premiere of Village Rockstars. And Mira Nair, another great friend of the festival, closed TIFF 2020 with her six-part series based on Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
Amongst the several first-time features that stood out at this edition were Nicole Riegel’s Holler, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, and Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom. While different in tone and tenor, the focus of the films is on the young woman who is both at the centre of the narrative, and propels it. This is the crucial element which makes these films special, because it is usually women who are shown responding to the moves men make.
How do you escape a dead-beat job in a dead-beat town? Ruth (Jessica Barden) lives with her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) in an uninspiring corner of Southern Ohio, working at a local factory’s assembly line, which gives her not a shred of satisfaction. There is no warm parental influence in their lives. They have no father, and the mother is jail on a drug-use charge: the only way out for Ruth is college, but where’s the money going to come from?
Riegel’s film gives us a young woman, reminiscent of the memorable role played by Jennifer Lawrence in Debra Granik’s Winter Bone, who struggles to overcome the difficulties in her path. And it isn’t easy. A dangerous stint with a scrapyard crew under the uncomfortable gaze of a much older man, where Ruth illegally learns to rip off metal, leads her to a crossroads: where does she go from here? The film’s bleak outlook is leavened with a ray of hope, when she decides to take a road less travelled.
Seligman’s Shiva Baby features a young Jewish woman who is reluctantly dragged off by her parents to a ‘shiva’ (a week-long mourning period where mourners join together in memory of the deceased) where her encounters with people she has been in relationships with results in a decidedly quirky, sharply observant film.
Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a twenty-something college student who never quite seems to graduate. She is, as we discover during the course of the day, a drifter in search of herself, slaloming between an older man (Danny Deferrari) and a girl (Molly Gordon) of her own age. The crowded room, the table groaning with food, and the constant hum will remind you of similar noisy Indian dos, with long-forgotten relatives accosting you everytime you turn a corner.
Families can be overbearing, and Danielle’s parents out-do themselves by informing anyone who cares to ask about what their daughter is up to (whether it is a funeral or a wedding, people will always remain nosy), and what, in their considered opinion, she should be up to. Meanwhile, said daughter, who has been demanding money in exchange of sex, is busy hiding secrets: that other people can be equally secretive is her learning of the day. Will she take it forward, going forward?
A relationship between an older man and a young girl is also at the heart of Lindon’s Spring Blossom, but in this instance, it is much sweeter, and not in the least transactional. Of course, the whole idea of age difference and the question of consent poses a dilemma, but the film gets past that by not being explicit: the attraction between the 16-year-old school-girl Suzanne, played by the writer and director (who has herself just turned twenty) and the older theatre actor Raphael (Arnaud Valois) can be seen, as the film intends it to, a connection between two kindred souls.
Express@TIFF | From the cathartic The Ties to the charming Tove | Regina King’s One Night In Miami is a powerful film | Summer of 85 is François Ozon in minor key | Vanessa Kirby is terrific in Pieces Of A Woman | Concrete Cowboy coasts on the real warmth of its characters | From the disturbing New Order to the chilling Violation | Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy is worth your time
Boredom can be a great connector. Suzanne feels out of place in the teenage hubbub that surrounds her. Raphael couldn’t be bothered going out with the others of the cast. One of the loveliest bits of the film is when the two, in the process of coming to know each other, listen to the same music, and mirror each other’s actions—swaying to the sound, waving their arms, eyes closed. The connection between the two is tenuous, but tangible: you get the feeling that it may not last too long, as teenage passions are wont to, but it may leave a stamp on both. In spring, things blossom.
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