Toronto Film Festival spotlights fascinating women

ScreenerBlog

One of my personal highlights so far at the Toronto International Film Festival is A Fantastic Woman, the new film from Sebastián Lelio, the Chilean director of 2013’s excellent Gloria. While that titular adjective may be a little hyperbolic, the lead character in that drama, a trans woman dealing with the aftermath of her older lover’s sudden death, is certainly fascinating, as are three other women who are at the center of Toronto offerings: one real-life pop diva, and two disgraced females whose life stories are dramatized.

A Fantastic Woman, from Sony Pictures Classics, is something of a landmark in the portrayal of trans characters in cinema. The central heroine, a waitress and gifted singer named Marina, is onscreen throughout as the film gives us an intimate look at her struggles and indignities, and she’s played by a trans actress, Daniela Vega, in a riveting performance. In the early scenes, Marina seems to have an idyllic life, having found a distinguished older man who truly loves and dotes on her. But everything changes when Orlando suffers an aneurism during the night and ultimately succumbs. In the nightmare that follows, Marina is both suspected of foul play by the police and as a possible abuse victim by a well-meaning bureaucrat, and must contend with Orlando’s bitter ex-wife, hostile son and the rest of his transphobic family, all while processing her own immense grief.

Roger Ebert once famously called the movies “an empathy machine,” and that’s what this film delivers as we experience Marina’s second-class status from her vantage point and feel her anger, sadness and frustration. And it’s all draped in a visually sumptuous package that’s as stylish and glamorous as Marina’s dream life.

Marina would no doubt find a kindred spirit in another fantastic woman, the powerful and protean pop singer Lady Gaga, who had Toronto fans lined up several blocks past the Princess of Wales Theatre Friday night to see her new Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, with a live performance promised. That performance consisted of one song, a dynamic, slow-tempo version of her huge hit “Bad Romance” at the piano; we were all very much left wanting more, even though Gaga and director Chris Moukarbel returned after the film for a Q&A. The doc itself is a highly intimate look at the performer’s home and family life and her daunting work schedule; Moukarbel called it “daily whiplash.” The singer born Stefani Germanotta let Moukarbel capture her in unflattering situations (like a flare-up on the set of “American Horror Story: Roanoke,” or visits to physicians for the chronic pain she still experiences from a hip injury) and like many a big star she can come across as irritatingly self-absorbed. But there’s no denying her soaring talent, her exacting work ethic, or her devotion to her rabid fans. It’s also refreshing to witness her warm bond with her parents and grandmother; despite all the fame, fortune and outrageousness, Gaga remains very much a goodhearted Italian girl from New York City. Though sometimes very rough around the edges, the film also provides gratifying glimpses of the artist at work, laying tracks for her most recent album Joanne and preparing for the biggest night of her life, her sensational “greatest hits” performance at the most recent Super Bowl. Gaga fans, and they are legion, will love Five Foot Two.

You’ll come away from I, Tonya with a new attitude toward one of the ’90s most notorious females, the champion figure skater Tonya Harding. Though Harding was incredibly accomplished, celebrated for her rare mastery of the triple axel jump, her talent was ultimately overshadowed by “the incident”—an attack on her Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan, struck on the leg with a metal baton. The film makes the case that Harding had nothing to do with it, but that the assault was the result of her ne’er-do-well, abusive husband Jeff Gillooly’s plan to threaten Kerrigan that was taken all too literally by one of his dimwitted buddies. Yet Harding ultimately pled guilty to conspiracy to avoid jail time and was banned from professional skating forever, while becoming a national punch line.

Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and written by Steven Rogers (Kate & Leopold), the film succeeds in redeeming Harding as something of a culture-clash rebel defying impossible odds. Driven by a nightmarishly hard-hearted mother (played to hilarious perfection by the great Allison Janney), Tonya develops remarkable skills—but that isn’t always enough in a sport where “presentation” also matters: Her tacky homemade costumes and her rock ’n’ roll music choices brand her as white trash.

Rogers takes a faux documentary approach to the story, and his doc is packed with unreliable narrators who contradict one another. But one thing is clear: Harding was a bad-ass champion brought down by both the terrible people in her life and the elitist biases of her sport. Margot Robbie tamps down her beauty as Tonya and delivers a sensational performance, forcing us to reconsider our perceptions of this scandalous media figure. She also does much of her own skating, though CGI was obviously needed to replicate many of Harding’s astonishing routines. Sebastian Stan also dials back his handsomeness as Jeff, who loves Tonya but has a shocking temper. I, Tonya could have used a little trimming of its many domestic-violence scenes, the darkest aspect of what is otherwise a very lively and antic portrait of a tragic working-class heroine.

There’s another female Olympic competitor in the Toronto lineup: Molly Bloom, a downhill skier who showed great promise until a freak accident ended her sporting career. Molly restarted her life as a waitress and was recruited as the assistant to a Hollywood player who organized private poker games attracting A-list names. Molly eventually severed her relationship with her a-hole boss, took what she learned and set up her own competing, much superior poker operation, stealing his clients.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directing debut, Molly’s Game, tracks Molly’s rise and fall and benefits tremendously from the lead performance of Jessica Chastain, radiating charisma, confidence and intelligence—and capably handling one of the densest voiceover narrations in movie history. Though Molly’s pursuit would seem to be corrupt and sordid, this amazing entrepreneur kept her operation legal and clean—except for one terrible misstep that partly validated the government’s case against her. And even at her most desperate, she never cashed in by exposing dirt on her celebrity clients. In other words, this poker queen had integrity; as with Tonya Harding, first impressions can be deceiving. Idris Elba lends solid support as her at-first-reluctant attorney, and Kevin Costner gets a poignant late scene as her hard-driving father (though a friend of mine observed that it’s a case of Sorkin once again having a character “mansplain” to a woman). Overall, Sorkin proves himself a capable director with this STX Entertainment release, and it will be intriguing to see where his filmmaking career goes next. Wherever it goes, he would be wise to include Chastain in the mix.