Susan Sarandon, Idris Elba and Tom Courtenay meet the public at Toronto Fest


The Toronto International Film Festival gives the press some 14 to 15 screening options at any one time, but it's always fun to attend a few public screenings, where stars and directors often appear after the film for a Q&A. (And Toronto audiences do love their star sightings.) This year I attended three, and here are some highlights:

Director Cary Fukunaga ("True Detective") and his lead actors Idris Elba and gutsy young newcomer Abraham Attah were cheered at the Ryerson Theatre's Sunday night screening of Beasts of No Nation, a searing drama about African youth coerced into becoming child soldiers by a charismatic and volatile rebel commander (Elba) in an unnamed country. The somewhat shy Attah immediately indicated he was unaccustomed to North American air conditioning and was given a sweater to wear. Fukunaga and "The Wire" and "Luther" star Elba praised the first-time actor's natural instincts as a performer in an incredibly demanding and harrowing role. As an example, the director recalled that Attah kept his distance from Elba on the day they were to film a bitterly confrontational scene—"He didn't want to be in a positive space with Idris," Fukunaga noted.

Fukunaga served as his own cinematographer on the film, and Elba observed, "Cary did not stop working--everyone dialed into his energy." The project, adapted by Fukunaga from the acclaimed novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala, was a no-frills labor of love for everyone involved. As Fukunaga noted, Elba's green room was his car and his make-up area was inside a tent. Already being touted for awards consideration for its two leads, Beasts of No Nation is the first major theatrical release (going day-and-date) for Netflix, and the first Netflix production to be featured at TIFF.

Much, much lighter fare was offered Monday afternoon at the Princess of Wales Theatre: The Meddler, the new comedy from writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Searching for a Friend at the End of the World), starring Susan Sarandon as a mother who knows no boundaries when it comes to her adult daughter's life. The radiant Sarandon was there for a Q&A along with Scafaria and co-stars J.K. Simmons and Jason Ritter (who only appears in two scenes and was asked no questions).

Scafaria's film is based on her own irrepressible mother, with Rose Byrne as the director's surrogate, a Hollywood TV writer. Like her screen alter ego Marnie, Scafaria's mother is a widow from New Jersey who started a new life in Los Angeles, partly to be closer to her daughter. "I've been raising her in L.A. for six years," the director joked at the Q&A, calling out to her muse sitting in the audience, "We're having fun, right, Ma?" The film, she explained, was inspired by their different responses to the death of her father (whose actual photo is seen during the movie). "She was so optimistic in handling her grief."

An audience member asked Sarandon if she responded differently to scripts written by women like this one and her celebrated Thelma & Louise. Sarandon was having none of that. "I just look for a good script," she said. "Bull Durham had one of my strongest female characters. That was written by a guy [Ron Shelton] who really loves women." For Sarandon, a good script is often "something your heart's in—his story, her story [referring to Shelton and Scafaria]. Thelma & Louise wasn't anyone's story, thank God."

Simmons plays Sarandon's love interest, a retired cop Marnie meets when she accidentally wanders into a movie shoot and gets hired as an extra. Scafaria said she was intrigued by the ex-cops you see on movie sets: "They're all very tan, they all have moustaches, and they all ride Harleys." This is recent Oscar winner Simmons' first romantic lead, and he admitted he had been "looking for a love story for 60-year-olds."

Sarandon told the audience that their applause over the end credits drowned out a voiceover in which Marnie makes plans to go out to the desert with Simmons' ex-cop. "Not necessarily overnight," she cautioned. "Oh, she's staying overnight," Simmons interrupted, to peals of laughter.

The Meddler is fluff, but likeable fluff, and it's gratifying to see Sarandon making the most of a purely comic role. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film next year, surely marketing it as the perfect mother-daughter date movie.

A more artful and subtle film for the older demographic is 45 Years, which screened today at the beautiful, literally leafy Winter Garden Theatre. Sixties British film icons Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay co-star as Geoff and Kate, a cozy Norfolk couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, whose lives are jolted by the news that the body of Geoff's long-ago lover has been discovered in the Alpine glacier where she fell more than 50 years ago. The memory of that lost love haunts Geoff, and Kate finds herself jealous of a ghost.

The two stars are very believable as a longtime married couple, and director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, HBO's "Looking") said he shot the film in sequence to help his actors take their emotional journey together. Courtenay recalled that the very first scene of the script, in which Geoff gets a letter about the discovery of his ex-lover's body, "knocked the hell out of me, just possessed me." He noted that his 42-year-old director is sick of people asking how he is able to write for such elderly characters, but admitted that he himself was astonished by Haigh's relative youth.

Haigh said he kept his fingers "very, very crossed" when he offered the roles to Rampling and Courtenay, and confided about one special contribution Courtenay made to to the script: 'He liked to add swear words."