By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 15, 2007 at 4:28AM
Frustrated youth form the centerpieces of several smaller films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, and a few bigger ones, too--although even those entries come from filmmakers currently in nascent stages of their careers.
"Nothing is Private," a late festival feature purchased by Warner Independent and focused on the discomfiting sexual awakening of a Persian-American teenager, marks the directorial debut of Alan Ball, whose was the creator of the HBO television series "Six Feet Under" and wrote the screenplay for "American Beauty." Ball's screenplay for "Private" frequently confuses depravity for dark humor, and it's hard to tell what the film is trying to say and at what points it intends to be taken seriously. Still, it's easy to see audiences take a liking to the story--which involves young Jasira (Summer Bishil) and her taboo-soaked sexual encounters (including a few with a next door neighbor played by Aaron Eckhart)--since its main provocations suggest an unholy marriage of "American Beauty" and "American Pie."
A more subdued and original inspection on the tribulations of being young and restless, "Lars and the Real Girl," which opens nationwide next month, stars Ryan Gosling in his finest performance. As a lonely character whose guilt complex surrounding his mother's death leads to a delusional belief that a sex doll is his girlfriend, Gosling wears a sad puppy face and exudes pathos. "Lars" is the second film from director Craig Gillespie after "Mr. Woodcock," and his dedication to bittersweet humor and unpretentious storytelling bodes well for his developing oeuvre.
Dealing with a similar leitmotif, but geared toward a literal interpretation, the Canadian feature "Young People Fucking" pretty much summarizes itself with that off-putting name. But since the entire film centers on a handful of sexual encounters, cut together and divided into chapters so that the sex becomes the story. Since the movie isn't really explicit (no genitalia was hurt in the making of this film), it feels closer to the work of Joe Swanberg than to "Shortbus." Conversations between the copulating protagonists include whether or not it's acceptable for friends to sleep together and the perils of strap-on intercourse, all of which plays nicely to a crowd of, well, young people.
But the characters in "Young People Fucking" aren't necessarily happy, and lurking beneath the surface are intriguing conceits about lust as a defense mechanism against existential indolence. That being said, since the movie never really leaves the bedroom, its flat structure grows tiresome after a while. The subject matter has been stripped down (so to speak) to its bare essence. The result amounts to little more than sexualized cocktail chatter.
Exploring the issue from an entirely separate aesthetic standpoint, Taiwanese director Kang-sheng Lee's second feature, "Help Me Eros," views eroticism as a thing of sheer beauty. The movie stars Kang-sheng as an isolated stoner whose life problems are both monetary and romantic. He falls in love with a career counselor, but settles for immediate sexual release with the first girl he can get. While Lee's principle experience comes from acting, he seems profoundly attuned to the creative enlightenment born out of solitary disillusionment.
Another TIFF film dealing with anxiety-riddled juvenescence, "Deficit," suggests Richard Linklater by way of Andrew Bujalski. That is, it's a tightly controlled narrative about universal camaraderie that takes place entirely during the course of a house party, but virtually nothing happens--and the sequence of events matters less than the overall portrait of twentysomething apprehension. Directed by the actor Gael Garcia Bernal (working from his native Mexican turf), "Deficit" mainly revolves around the facile concerns of a college age party host (Bernal), whose worries about following in his Harvard graduate father's footsteps hinders his own sense of ambition.
Save for two breathtaking conclusive shots, Bernal's direction is fairly stolid, relying on the strength of the various performers to carry the plot to its dramatic climax. While not always successful at conveying believable exchanges, "Deficit" manages to be frequently funny and likable. Given the bad track record of actors who catch the directing bug (see: Justin Theroux, "Dedication"), the fact that "Deficit" more or less works as competent entertainment bodes well for Bernal's future projects.
The overarching framework of Gen-X dissatisfaction and the specific plight of beginning filmmakers becomes an engrossing formula in the TIFF documentary "Operation Filmmaker." Director Nina Davenport set out to document the experience of a 20 year old Iraqi whose brief MTV appearance inspired Liev Schrieber to hire him as an intern on the Prague set of "Everything is Illuminated." Davenport's documentary begins as a spirited profile, the sort of wishy-washy thing that you might expect to find on the "Illuminated" DVD. But in short order, the movie becomes something much more profound.
Unable to comprehend the work ethic that he's suddenly expected to deliver, the Iraqi doesn't manage to make the networking connection that he needs in order to launch his career. The rest of the story follows his desperate attempts to extend his visa and figure out how to continually finance his studies. Needless to say, it's an uphill battle. Davenport's direction is intricate and her editing is sublime; like "My Kid Could Paint That," the documentarian becomes a part of the story (her subject keeps asking her for money), and the technique never feels forced or pretentious. Ultimately, "Operation Filmmaker" is an essential study in intercultural communication and the ways that it can go so very wrong.
"Very Young Girls," another documentary at the festival dealing with unhappy people in the early stages of adulthood, contains a less steady arc but immediately involving material. The story of several teenage prostitutes (most of them black) whose New York experiences lead them to seek out social rehabilitation, "Very Young Girls" begins with the shocking revelation that the average New York prostitute is thirteen years old. The subsequent testimonials are continually unsettling, filled with anecdotes about shamelessly misogynistic pimps and gritty street antics, but the movie gets immediately gripping. It's impossible to look at these people and not wonder if proper parenting and education could've fixed their feeble lives. The story falls apart in the third act, as director David Schisgall pulls together a number of developments and fails to lock onto a unifying conclusion, but the lasting effect of the girls' accounts is indisputable.
It might be a stretch to lump a nature documentary about warring insects into this thematic overview, but the French-made "La Citadelle Assiegee" ("The Besieged Fortress") has metaphorical implications that could be applied to any type of drama. Shot with the lavish production values of a science fiction film, the movie captures the plight of a termite hill as the colony deals with the ire of invasive ants, the tongues of predatory chameleons, and the greatest adversary of all: Mother Nature.
Pulled together under the detailed direction of Phillipe Calderon, "Assiegee" is so well assembled that it's often hard to believe the visuals aren't enhanced by CGI. Veteran documentarian and all-around filmmaking legend Werner Herzog also has a nature documentary at the festival this year, the cosmically amusing Antarctica fable "Encounters at the End of the World," but it's Calderon's film that truly embodies Herzog's concept of ecstatic truth. In final analysis, the movie views organic conflict as a source of unequivocal beauty.
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