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Toronto Correspondences #9: Redemption and Repression

Trey Edward Shults's "Waves," Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's "Synchronic," Coky Giedroyc's "How to Build a Girl."
Kelley Dong
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. CroceKelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny and Fern,
Maybe I should admit now that this year's festival has been fully filtered through the fact that only a day before it began, I finally saw Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993). The Bronx-set film, which follows reformed gangster Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) and his dream of love and freedom, is a wrenching double exposure: Thrashing scenes of gunfights and shady deals lose their opacity beneath the romance of Carlito and his lover Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), who are saving up to afford a future together. But soon worlds clash, and a decision must be made fast; between the two frames, one of love and another of death, where shall Carlito go? How kind it is that De Palma takes the position of a real friend, refusing to corner Carlito as a soul to be saved, affording him the agency to screw up and to then face the repercussions, but with all of the pleasures of life still sandwiched in between. Though Carlito is determined to start over, Carlito's Way does not indulge in a fetish of the clean slate. Hands are dirtied, hearts are broken, dreams are written then revised, again and again. There is no easy way out.
With his latest Waves, Trey Edward Shults relates to transgressions like a priest, treating mistakes only as sins to be pardoned or forgiven. The film follows an upper middle-class African-American family in the face of stomach-churning tragedy, and is protective to a fault by packaging pain in premature hope. In two chapters that rise and fall as neatly as examples in a sermon, Shults introduces the plight of high-schooler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his sister Emily (Taylor Russell). From Waves's opening, the camera spins in 360-degrees and we become prematurely dizzy with the excess of the siblings' lives: cars and sports and parties and a very big house, extremely loud music and a gorgeous beach nearby in perpetual golden hour. (Spoilers from here on out.) Whenever he must comedown from the high of youth, Tyler buckles under the immense pressure and expectations of his callous father (Sterling K. Brown) and his doting stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry). His girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) is no help, only providing temporary respite with her cute selfies scattered about his room.
A shoulder injury from wrestling practice and an ominous text from Alexis threaten to bring the circular motions of senior year to a halt. Tyler, having been told by his father that he needs to try twice as hard as a black man, does not know how to cope with the whiplash. An eruption approaches, but entropy is delayed by lengthy languishing in moods and vibes as Tyler distracts himself from confronting reality. More neon lights, more outstretched arms feeling the wind from open car windows, more weed, more alcohol. The snapshots are stacked to a point of overwhelm, like a vertical scroll through months of someone's Instagram feed. Among its many influences (Punch-Drunk Love being the most obvious; the films share a near-identical end credits sequence), the film owes its sensuous and sumptuous movement to the music videos of Kahlil Joseph, including Beyoncé's Lemonade and his short film with Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city. At a bonfire one night, Tyler screams the lyrics to Lamar's "Backseat Freestyle" ("All my life I want money and power"), surrounded by his crew and showered in red light. He fought with Alexis earlier; so Shults conspicuously appears to link the song to Tyler's hubris.
It may be a greedy milking of popular songs, but the sheer amount of popular music in Waves enhances this portrait of Generation Z (mid-1990s to early 2000s) as a bunch of kids who cannot self-relate or self-express except through playlists. But it should be noted that, as in the case of "Backseat Freestyle," Waves reserves boastful rap songs for scenes of hyper-masculine overcompensation—screaming, fighting, destroying lives—and never for, say, sitting around and having a chill time, as if these songs only exist as bad influences and not as good music. And once Kanye West's "I Am A God" booms over Tyler's inevitable breakdown, a creeping suspicion is then confirmed: the film assumes that Tyler (and, by extension, his entire family) is a mere product of and reaction to his surroundings—what the radio plays, what his father says, what his girlfriend does—and not a vehicle of his own will.
This "hate the sin, love the sinner" viewpoint sets up the film's second half, which begins after Tyler commits an irreversible act of misogynistic violence. (I have to say, there are way too many films that both claim to deconstruct "toxic masculinity" and feature women as the props of a broken man's escape room, which he must destroy to get out of his cage.) From Emily's perspective, we witness the family torn apart by grief and guilt. Simultaneously, she falls in love with a boy from school who is grappling with a tragedy of his own. What is most disappointing about this shift in focus is that it is not a transition at all, but only another way of looking back at Tyler. Because he is not physically present (and because he is incarcerated for his misdeeds), Shults assumes the film is no longer beholden to holding him accountable.
Unlike her brother, who bruises himself through life as if slamming into doors, Emily floats; the grittiness of the former half is replaced with frames suffused in soft sunlight and indie pop. Her own devastation is related back to her sibling. When Emily boldly exclaims that she hates her brother for what he did, that he's a monster, her father sternly replies that Tyler is not a monster, stopping her tears with a bible quote ("Love is patient...") and reminder that she needs to let go of the hate in her heart. But in fact, that hate had never materialized at any point prior except in that moment, when it just began to bloom into the mature realization that even family can be wrong. The redemption of the boy is thus bound to the repression of the girl; forgiveness is conflated with a forced forgetfulness among family members; and pain is not granted the permission to permeate, and must pass over in waves.
In Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's science fiction procedural Synchronic, your soul may be saved by saving that of another, and the film exploits the pure eagerness to be a Good Samaritan for its cheap thrills. Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are two medics who specialize in treating victims of drug overdoses. Like their nameless victims, only identified by their addictions, the pair's personalities are limited to bullet-point lists of problems: Steve sleeps around and drinks too much; Dennis hates his wife and kids and drinks too much. Louisiana life is already dreary beneath a muddy sky. But when a new drug called "synchronic" causes an epidemic of supernatural deaths and the disappearance of Dennis's daughter, the medics must also put their detective hats on and get to the bottom of things before it's too late. Or so the pitch goes.
The drug, as it turns out, induces time travel, but only to the past, which proves drastic for the stoned and unprepared. The scariness, however, is not from the drug itself but that Steve is the only one able to survive the drug, and his morally upright desire to turn his life around leads him to search for the missing girl by enduring extreme encounters with ghosts of racist pasts. Considering time travel from a racial dimension would otherwise make for a timely tale, but Benson and Moorhead are too intrigued with the adrenaline rush of running away from racists—slave owners and KKK members—while never reckoning with how this process may eat at an already alienated person. As Steve, Anthony Mackie communicates in scowls and grimaces; his loneliness and depression never fully uncovered beneath the hard shell. Which is to say that Synchronic quickly becomes a torture chamber with only one test subject. Each trip lasts only seven minutes, then condensed by jump cuts and the smudging of a handheld camera. The superficiality and the shortness of the high limits the black man’s response to his repeated brushes with death to wordless weeping and blank stares at the wall.
The film only barely toes the thematic territory carved out by the many Afrofuturist artists who've long toyed with time travel to interrogate what it means to be entwined by enslavement to the nation. Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, for instance, involves the time traveling of a black woman to the antebellum South, wherein she discovers that her lineage can be traced back to a rapist slave owner, a mortifying past that makes way for her present. Such depth is nowhere to be found in Synchronic, which invokes the lush swamplands of Louisiana and the battlefields of the Civil War like postcards bearing the news of black suffering, the content shallow and sour. At the very least, the case is solved.
How to Build a Girl
Among a mass of films chained to and dragged by the heaviness of shame and guilt, I am happy to report that Coky Giedroyc's How to Build a Girl instead celebrates the necessity and hilarity of embarrassment. Based on the novel of the same name by journalist Caitlin Moran, the film stars Beanie Fieldstein as Johanna, a working-class girl whose greatest hope is to have passionate sex and be invited into the "cool room," where the school's hipsters laze around and listen to rock and roll. Like Johanna herself, How to Build a Girl is a wonderfully tasteless and swaggerless film, overexposed and packed with pop-rock interludes without a whiff of sarcasm and little inhibition. One writing contest after another whisks the sixteen-year-old, barely-aspiring writer from a boring town of bullies to London, where D&ME (a riff on NME) writers are surprised she (a teenage girl who dissects the Annie soundtrack as her first piece of music journalism) is even real.
A sudden ascent to journalist royalty contributes to a much-needed boost in self-esteem, but Giedroyc makes all too clear that by virtue of her naivety, Johanna's view of her newfound agency can only be skewed and starry-eyed. Surrounded by the men that she sees as handsome and charming, unhinged hormones overrides any alertness to their leery comments and their hungry gaze (though in a quick minute of lucidity, she does crush a man's leg). An unglamorous makeover sequence shows Johanna wandering in and out of thrift shops (and fighting with elderly women) until she perfects a signature outfit to accompany her pseudonym, Dolly Wild. It resembles a cross between a clown and a cabaret dancer. Her style throughout the film never improves, but her age nonetheless makes her the ideal plaything of perverts, who ironically become instrument to her incredibly horny plot to become a nasty, sexy beast. "You need to be more repressed!" her brother yells, exhausted by her heterosexual hedonism. Johanna never wants to hear about his own crushes anymore; she is too busy escaping (and helping her family escape) poverty to care, and cultivating the ego is essential for an industry that pays for assured opinions.
Because all thoughts externalized are then immortalized in print, Johanna eventually must come face-to-face with the weight of her words, a fascinating thematic angle that will likely resonate with girls of a younger generation wherein online publication or wide-spread oversharing has become more accessible. Among seasoned adult writers, Johanna quickly learns, sincerity is punished as a childish impulse and pretension is rewarded. Eager to fit in with peers twice her age, she sheds her age-appropriate style (heartfelt prose drenched in metaphor) for the persona of a cruel critic who tanks the careers of local musicians, including that of her own father. Though writing enables a lack of boundaries, it is through writing (developing a tone and position, balancing professional and personal obligations) that Johanna also discovers that boundaries are essential. She never really does "reign it in," as her teacher advises, or even become less repressed. The film ends with a series of awkward apologies, some go well and most do not. Redemption comes Johanna's way not by the cancellation of her confidence, but by a confident rectification of her mistakes.


TIFFTIFF 2019CorrespondencesFestival CoverageJustin BensonAaron MoorheadTrey Edward ShultsCoky GiedroycBrian De Palma
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