BY THOMAS BREEN
The 41st annual Toronto International Film Festival kicked off its first day of screenings yesterday with a slate of films that explored the endlessly complicated, joyful, and emotionally gut-wrenching relationship that exists between parents and children.
A perennial topic of artistic angst and inspiration, generational conflict and its tragic inevitability are defining elements of everything from Oedipus Rex to American Pastoral. A few of the movies that played at TIFF on Thursday, from Hirokazu Kore-eda's AFTER THE STORM to Maren Ade's TONI ERDMANN to Stella Meghie's JEAN OF THE JONESES, picked up on this theme, offering a unique vantage on the familiar question of familial inheritance.
These movies went beyond merely showing how the sins of the parent are passed on to the child. They took that extra step towards evaluating the consequences of that transference, and tentatively offering a solution (as challenging and painful as it may be) towards some kind of filial acceptance and reconciliation.
AFTER THE STORM
Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda is no stranger to movies about the subtle but painful miscommunication between parents and children. In his 2013 film LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, Kore-eda followed a father so convinced of the superiority of his bloodline that he trades the 10-year-old son he has raised as his own in exchange for a biological son accidentally placed with another family at birth. Needless to say, neither son is thrilled with the swap, and the father soon recognizes that a child's personality, abilities, and happiness are determined by more than just biology.
In his latest film, AFTER THE STORM, which played at TIFF on Thursday morning, Kore-eda tells the story of a writer-turned-private detective with a serious gambling habit who yearns to win back the love of an estranged ex-wife and a confused young son.
At first glance, Hiroshi Abe's Shinoda Ryota is a variation on the private detective character type that has been so central to the movies for well over half a century. Perceptive, disheveled, and altruistic against his better judgment, Ryota has just enough wits to think he's one step ahead of his mark ... until he realizes that the roles are, and perhaps have always been, reversed. He is the vulnerable one, not just because of the unfairness and indifference of his environment, but because of his inability to recognize his own shortcomings.
But AFTER THE STORM, an understated and heartfelt movie, is much closer to an Ozu family drama then it is to a Bogart film noir. The camera is still and low to the ground; each image is composed with clarity and sensitivity to the rectangular framing of domestic settings; and every emotion, every painful revelation, is filtered through the slowest of burns, making its impact, when discovered, all the more profound.
Ryota's skills as a writer and detective, as well as the depths of his gambling addiction and paranoia, all find their way into a complicated psychological portrait of a loving father unable to take care of himself, let alone an entire family. And yet, his character arc is not one of penitence and reform.
Rather, he and his family come to an understanding that Ryota can only change himself so much. His good humor and self-destructive habits, inherited squarely from his estranged and recently deceased father and encouraged in his soft-spoken but wide-eyed son, can only be changed so much. As Ryota and his family lovingly chase after lotto tickets during a typhoon in a heartwarming and heartbreaking scene towards the end of the movie, Kore-eda seems to suggest that the most potent tool for familial reconciliation is loving yourself, accepting yourself, appreciating those around you, while still trying to be the best version of who you inevitably are.
The second masterpiece of the day that offered as unflinching and thorough an examination of a parent-child relationship as any movie in recent memory was Maren Ade's TONI ERDMANN.
In this nearly 3-hour long German-language film, Sandra Hüller plays Ines Conradi, an ambitious and overworked consultant for an oil company who lives in Bucharest, Romania, and Peter Simonischeck plays her father, Winfried Conradi, a schlubby, good-natured middle school teacher from Aachen, Germany who loves to play practical jokes. Sensing that his daughter is not nearly as happy in her inscrutable white-collar workplace as she claims to be, Winfried spontaneously pays her an extended visit in Bucharest, unleashing a string of practical jokes that go from harmless to deeply uncomfortable to surprisingly revelatory.
Much like AFTER THE STORM, TONI ERDMANN identifies an inability to live in and appreciate the present moment as one of the chief ills of modern life. But that impatience and myopia do not manifest themselves in some purely abstract or even social or economic way. They are rooted in the most intimate of relationships, between father and daughter, and drive the two apart in a way that workplace successes and frustrations could never approach.
Humor, TONI ERDMANN suggests, is one key that may allow a parent and child to reclaim some of that perspective that leads to understanding and love. Humor allows these characters to take a step back, to take a step out of their lives and into a moment disconnected from the pressures of customs, codes, workplace discrimination and filial miscommunication.
As Hüller's and Simonischeck's fearless acting and Ade's assured directing help achieve a near-perfect balance of comedy and pathos, TONI ERDMANN returns to humor again and again as more than just a vehicle for laughter. It is a balm for a relationship previously frayed by distance and neglect, now connected through some kind of understanding (achieved through the most uncomfortable and hilarious of pursuits).
JEAN OF THE JONESES
Stella Meghie's JEAN OF THE JONESES, one of the last films to play on TIFF's first day of screenings, follows a similar theme as AFTER THE STORM and TONI ERDMANN in its pursuit to understand the root causes of, and ultimate remedies for, filial discord and chaos in a specific family.
Taylour Paige plays Jean Jones, a young African-American writer from Brooklyn who has stalled out in her life. Two years after publishing her first book to wide acclaim, she seems to have squandered her artistic promise (and its accompanying monetary advances) on clothes, booze, self-hatred, and familial squabbling. When her long lost grandfather suddenly appears and then just as suddenly disappears, she tries to redirect her flailing energy to navigating her dysfunctional family and various neuroses with some hope of getting closure for both.
Unlike Kore-eda's and Ade's near-perfect films, JEAN OF THE JONESES suffers from one too many cinematic stumbling blocks, from its overwritten screenplay and meandering scenes to a distractingly fluffy score. But one of its great strengths is its exploration of the frenzied dynamic of a family that is simultaneously secretive and gregarious. Each generation, from grandmother to aunts and mother to Jean herself, possesses a self-loathing and distrust of others that inevitably results in further personal and interpersonal chaos. As Meghie and Jean steer the family away from duplicity and towards honesty, however painful that may be, the Joneses come to embrace one another as they begin to accept and love themselves.