Those living in the United States often forget that “America” encompasses a much wider swath of territory than the 50 states. There’s Canada, of course. And even in certain parts of India the residents call themselves “American.” For powerful evidence, see Ashim Ahluwalla’s “John & Jane,” one of the most fascinating discoveries at this year’s festival. An observational documentary about 1-800-call workers in Bombay, “John and Jane” exposes the insidious reach of the so-called American Dream, as experienced by six phone agents who peddle odd products and services to callers throughout the U.S.
Without any direct comment, Ahluwalia's camera captures the workers' strange surreal lives as they leave their small cramped flats for the clean, immaculate hallways of their offices and take on fake American names to interact with their customers. More intriguing and alarming, however, is the workers' "cultural training" -- where they learn about "the pursuit of happiness" and other distinctly "American" fundamentals.
Inspired, one man buys self-motivation tapes in order to realize his dream of becoming a billionaire, like Elvis and Englebert Humperdinck; a woman refashions her identity around her phone alias "Nicky Cooper"; a blonde girl prides herself on her light skin and Westernized looks. Utterly blind to the cultural imperialism overtaking their existence, the film's subjects are among globalization's most tragic offspring. After watching "John and Jane," you'll never think the same way again about calling customer service.
Meanwhile, Canadian Americans have warmly embraced their own at this year's fest. In addition to David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” other Canook star Atom Egoyan’s “Where the Truth Lies” was also well received at its press-and-industry screening. But a little film from French Canada has stood out above the rest, receiving repeat screenings for industry-ites two days in a row. Jean-Marc Vallee’s coming-out, coming-of-age opus “C.R.A.Z.Y.” spans four decades and several musical movements from Patsy Cline’s title track to Bowie glam-rock to ‘80s punk in the lives of a French-Canadian family with five sons. Marc-Andre Grondin turns in a compelling performance as the troubled fourth son struggling with his sexual identity. Over- long, but solidly directed, the film features one of the most stunning slo-mo sequences – a dysfunctional family snapshot, par excellence, as drug-addicted older sibling goes for the throat of his younger fey brother during a Christmas celebration, toppling everyone and everything in his path.
If the protagonist of “C.R.A.Z.Y.” thinks it’s rough, he should meet the families of Michael Cuesta’s “Twelve and Holding,” one of the few American-made films that feels authentically locally grown. A deftly handled follow-up to his auspicious debut “L.I.E.,” “Twelve and Holding” examines the repercussions of the death of a young boy on his Long Island friends and family. What the film lacks in visual panache it more than makes up for with credible, tremendously likeable performances from its young cast. Warm, funny, poignant, and with a particularly hilarious use of the Blue Oyster Club's "Burning for You," "Twelve and Holding" feels like the quintessential Sundance indie underdog, perhaps oddly out-of-place in Toronto, but refreshing all the same.
Similarly, Jim McKay's latest humble HBO-produced portrait of confused youth, "Angel" sensitively captures the life of a troubled inner-city teenager, reeling from the abuse and rejection of his unloving parents. Rachel Griffiths, sporting a believable American accent, plays a counselor trying to help the boy, but the movie belongs to newcomer Jonan Everett, the latest in a long line of McKay's finds.
Larry Clark's lively, infectious and juvenile "Wassup Rockers" is also, in its own way, genuinely reflective of the distinctly American experience of its young subjects: a group of longhaired Hispanic teenagers from South Central Los Angeles (or, as one boy calls it unashamedly, "the ghetto.") A pure distillation of these kids' lives, fears, and fantasies, the film chronicles, initially docu-style, their quotidian existence: drinking, playing in a punk-rock band, skateboarding, talking about girls, and for their utterly charismatic leader, 14-year-old (and often shirtless) Jonathan Velasquez, sleeping around with them. But "Wassup" is surprisingly chaste for a Larry Clark film, as if envisioned by a young boy who doesn't completely understand the dangers that surrounds him. The movie could even be called innocent in its portrayal of the group's increasingly silly adventures, from taunting cops, making out with rich girls in Beverly Hills and finding their way back home with the help of a brigade of Hispanic maids.
The East L.A. of "Wassup Rockers" seems miles away from "Harsh Times," a sort of "Training Day" redux from the same screenwriter David Ayer about two out-of-work homeys (one played by Christian Bale) hanging out on the mean streets of the city. As much sick, twisted fun there is to be wrung from the first three quarters of the movie, “Harsh Times,” which will likely land in the lap of a major specialized distributor, seems more stereotypical than authentic; it can't hold a candle to the real kids Larry Clark has plucked from the ghetto and given a voice to.
There’s yet another America that one can see at the fest: the America of the European-financed English-language movie. Danes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg are back in North America with their latest films, “Manderlay” and “Dear Wendy,” respectively. Both set in foreign spaces that are meant to stand-in for U.S. domestic lands, the movies use their metaphorical American landscapes to attack the country's hypocritical ideals. That the locations don't resemble the U.S. is beside the point (see also some of the Italian places Abel Ferrara uses for his New York-set "Mary"); they are allegorical films with penetrating, sometimes muddled agendas.
Less metaphorical and more preposterous, Baltasar Kormakur’s “A Little Trip to Heaven" is set in a faux-Minnesota territory that more closely recalls the filmmaker’s home country of Iceland. License plates are obscured, road signs are strangely generic and Forest Whitaker’s Fargo-ish accent, some have joked, recalls his Irish brogue in “The Crying Game.” The neo-noir starts off engagingly enough, nevertheless, but the mistakenly realized details -- along with a few plot holes -- eventually cause the whole project to buckle. But maybe we can't blame "A Little Trip to Heaven" for its off-putting re-creation of America. After all, "America" belongs to the world.