AFF Day Four: Less is More

My Sunday brought about four films with different approaches to similar strengths (well, let's be honest, one was mostly weaknesses). In the spirit of today's minimalist theme, I'll jump right in.

 
Women Who Kill (Ingrid Jungermann)

Women Who Kill (Ingrid Jungermann)

 

As you might expect from a movie about podcasters, Women Who Kill is unapologetically current. Living in the hip New York neighbourhood of Park Slope with her ex-girlfriend, Morgan (director Ingrid Jungermann) works at a food co-operative and watches live performance art. When she meets the dark and mysterious Simone (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night's Sheila Vand), their budding relationship draws scrutiny from those close to Morgan for myriad reasons — not least so because Simone may or may not be a murderer. Jungermann's script follows the comedic trend of (perish the word) millennial metapsychology, where every dry quip is an externalization of someone's flaws, less jokes than weapons to be wielded against an enemy or accidental moments of vulnerability. Just as the serial killer podcast is a framework to ease the introduction of an alleged serial killer, Simone's presence is in turn surrogate for Morgan's inability to let go of her past. In the end, it doesn't matter if Simone did or didn't murder six women; whether that feels like a cop out to you very much hinges on your tolerance for a specific and recognizable type of wry anti-anything (in this case, crime-thriller-that's-not-a-thriller). I found it a fresh and funny, if not totally cohesive, debut from another much-needed female voice in independent cinema.

 
Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig)

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig)

 

Fresh, though, is decidedly not a term to be used for Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Meant to be an inside look at the pop culture craze caused in the early 2000s by the fabricated alt-identity of author Laura Albert, Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary shirks tough questions and neglects any attempt at cinematic craft. The story is recounted almost exclusively by Albert herself in a series of talking heads that amount to hand-waving and enthusiastic rationalizations of what she did, raising questions about the very notion of truth without ever so much as feigning interest in addressing it. Supplementing Albert's account are grainy voice recordings of phone conversations that she had with doctors, authors, and celebrities over the years. Not only do these scenes grind the film to a halt by having nothing of interest visually, opting to just show a cassette tape slowly spooling as we listen in, but the filmmaker and subject have drawn public ire for using several of the recordings without consent from the people heard speaking. In fact, Author (and, it would seem by extension, Albert) appears downright gleeful over the big names it was able to fool, at one point whipping through a montage of celebrity photographs and plastering their names across the screen like badges of honour. The least of the film's transgressions are corny sound and visual effects throughout, like when digital rain streaks down the camera lens, obscuring an still image of Laura holding an umbrella. The sum total is an endlessly interesting story told in a wholly disinteresting way, failing the basic benchmark for documentary filmmaking.

 
L'Avenir / Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

L'Avenir / Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

 

After two high-concept stories, fictional or otherwise, it was an absolute treat to watch Isabelle Huppert in a character-driven drama written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. In L'Avenir (alternately titled Things To Come in English), Huppert stars as a philosophy teacher named Nathalie who has to confront happiness, aging, and the search for purpose in the face of some major life events. It's important to notice that I didn't say "as her life falls apart" or "life-changing events" or "Nathalie must find the strength to carry on" — this is a graceful and understated film, free of the typical melodrama that can be conjured by synopsizing the film as "a career woman goes through a divorce". Actor and filmmaker are in perfect harmony, operating the same register as Huppert's quiet resolve and self-fulfillment match the elegant movements of the camera and the script's languid pace. The characters are almost exclusively philosophers, placing the film in a recognizable realm of European hyperintellectualism, but it never condescends so much as it simply muses. Backed by strong performances and confident direction, it is a low-key masterpiece with an unwavering air of contentment in the face of change.

 
Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie)

Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie)

 

Yesterday, I hinted that one connection in today's films would be the female creators at their helm. After seeing them, though, what stands out most about the three woman-led offerings is their restraint. It was present in varying levels in Women Who Kill and L'Avenir, but it took center stage in Ashley McKenzie's Werewolf. Set in Cape Breton, it's barely-there narrative is concerned with two recovering heroin addicts who are trying to get by on mowing lawns and other odd jobs. It is not a "drug movie" in any configuration you might imagine: nobody sneaks off to shoot up, there are no screaming, writhing withdrawal scenes. Nobody steals a TV or holds up a convenience store. There are just dirty socks, extreme close-ups, and moments of heartbreaking intimacy. McKenzie's framing does as much as her script to remind us that these people are not monsters — that addicts are not monsters — showing eyes and lips and fingers, as if taking a visual inventory of what makes them human. A bold approach to raw material puts Werewolf in rare company with the few Canadian films that don't confuse representation with advertisement or try to fit in with high-drama Hollywood fare. It's not a stretch to consider this work the Closet Monster of 2016, a strong and convincing showing from a breakout talent, but McKenzie has declared herself as a singular voice in Atlantic filmmaking with this debut.

Tomorrow holds She Remembers, He Forgets from Hong Kong and The Dressmaker from Australia, along with Canadian comedy Head Space and The Salesman, the latest from master Iranian screenwriter Asghar Farhadi.