Thursday’s death of Queen Elizabeth II dominated the news cycle, but the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival was filled with hope for the future. Introducing opening-night entry “The Swimmers” at the Princess of Wales Theatre, TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey addressed the two pandemic years that disrupted everything.
“It was artists, storytellers, filmmakers, who were finding ways to move us, inspire us, to remind us what we’re living for,” he said. “I want to thank you, the best movie audience in the world, for being part of this experience again.”
That experience takes many forms. The festival is a beacon for awards-season titles as well as red-carpet galas, documentaries, genre films, and international cinema. It’s also a snapshot of how the industry views commercial movies at a most fragile moment.
Netflix launched “The Swimmers,” the rousing-but-familiar true story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini (Nathalie and Manal Issa) who fled Syria for Europe while retaining their dreams of becoming Olympic athletes.
Directed by Sally El Hosaini, the movie works as a wholesome crowdpleaser unlikely to crack the awards conversation. The streamer’s awards team can sit back and let “The Swimmers” perform well on Netflix, where audiences looking for easy viewing will likely embrace it worldwide. It falls in line with TIFF openers like Magnolia’s “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,” or Netflix’s “Outlaw King” and “Borg McEnroe” — audience-friendly movies with moderate commercial potential.
Netflix, which brings eight films to TIFF this year ranging from “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” to animated “Wendell and Wild” and the Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain thriller “The Good Nurse,” arrives at the festival with a slate more attuned to general audiences than Academy members.
Meanwhile, A24 launched its gay military drama “The Inspection” in a late-evening slot designed to designate the movie as a hidden gem, but it has big plans. The touching and personable first feature of writer-director Elegance Bratton follows the experience of a 25-year-old Black man named Ellis (Jeremy Pope) who decides to enlist in the Marines after his mother (Gabrielle Union) kicks him out for being gay. The bulk of the movie takes place at a Mississippi boot camp overseen by a crude unit commander (Bokeem Woodbine) as Ellis develops an ill-fated attraction to his drill instructor (Raúl Castillo, in top form).
Bratton, who previously directed the documentary “Pier Kids,” about homeless youth in New York City, based his first narrative feature on his own experiences as an active-duty soldier from 2005-2010; the movie is dedicated to his estranged mother and unfolds in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era of the U.S. military. Nevertheless, “The Inspection” is less a coming-out than a coming-in story: Ellis never wavers from expressing his sexuality as the men in his unit make peace with it to varying degrees.
“Moonlight” meets “Full Metal Jacket,” Bratton’s script is sometimes disarmingly funny. Pope, best known for his Broadway roles, could be a dark horse in the Best Actor race, but the biggest opportunity lies with Union, whose own father was a drill sergeant. The actress delivers a passionate and conflicted turn as Ellis’ mother in a handful of scenes. While the Best Supporting Actress race has gotten competitive (mostly thanks to “Women Talking”), enthusiasm for the “Bring It On” star could help propel a campaign for her to finally be recognized.
To even consider that possibility, A24 needs this small-scale movie to build a much bigger profile. Behind the scenes, it boasts Gamechanger Films’ Effie T. Brown (“Real Women Have Curves”), who brought the project to A24 last year, and the company appears to be betting on an underexploited market. Sources tell me the recent trailer tested equally well in red and blue states, while some early screenings for gay members of the military showed promising results. The company is betting on an expansive demographic of veterans eager to revisit an aspect of the armed services that has never been shown, while also serving the same Black audiences that got excited by the representational strides of “Moonlight.”
Bratton is an excellent steward of the cause. The director teared up during the Q&A, dedicating his movie to “all the people that feel forgotten, to remember that you matter.” That’s a powerful message likely to get an even louder platform when the movie closes NYFF next month.
And then there was Apple, which premiered its documentary “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blue,” an absorbing collage-like overview of the musician’s personal audio diaries where he recorded the personal viewpoints he hid from public life.
Director Sacha Jenkins pairs this material with an array of archival footage and talking heads to interrogate Armstrong’s conflicting identities as a socially conscious man and apolitical performer. At a time when few documentaries have shown commercial potential at the box office, Apple is well positioned to take advantage of the festival platform to draw attention to the streaming launch.
The movie could have some awards momentum in the documentary race, as high-profile music documentaries often do, but that field is already competitive. For “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blue” to succeed, it just has to make a little noise at TIFF, then snake its way to AppleTV+.