2001 TIFF Festival Update #5: "Safety Net"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 12, 2001

For those of us stranded here in Toronto, there is nothing to do but to grieve, stare at TV stations regurgitating the same reports, and see movies. After canceling everything yesterday afternoon and last evening, the festival started up again today with a moment of silence. In keeping with the continuation of the festival, I will revive my coverage.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, it was the province of American independent films to take chances. But then the indies started making real money and garnering Oscar nominations. Larger studios snapped them up like sharks inhaling small fish, and the result has been lamentable for movie audiences who crave new and different cinematic experiences. In recent years, there has been little to distinguish the independent film from its mainstream cousin, except perhaps the budgets involved. Film festivals have always been a good place to take the pulse of the independent film, because it's possible to see so many examples in a short span of time, and because a distributor is not needed. While I would like to claim that the American independent film is flourishing this year at the Toronto Film Festival, that's not a statement I can make. It's alive, to be sure, but doing well? Sure, there are some very good ones out there, but the pickings are slim. Here's a look at a few of the more high profile American indies to play here.

The Safety of Objects exhibits some of the positives and many of the negatives that have characterized American independent cinema over the last decade. On the one hand, it is well-made and features solid performances from an ensemble cast. It also addresses issues. On the other hand, it shuns risk taking, preferring to play with a safety net. That's not to say this is a bad movie, but it never seems to be as good as it could be, and about 1/3 of the material put on screen doesn't work in one way or another. Part of me enjoyed The Safety of Objects, but another part of me was dissatisfied.

The film is the product of filmmaker Rose Troche, who, with her third feature (following Go Fish and Bedrooms and Hallways), is making a foray into the more mainstream side of the indie business. For this outing, she has assembled an impressive cast that features such mid-to-high wattage names as Glenn Close, Dermont Mulroney, Joshua Jackson, Patricia Clarkson, and Moira Kelly. Indeed, there isn't a bad performance to be found, and that's one of the reasons the picture sometimes works. Close in particular is very good, and her character ends up being at the focal point of the movie's central moral dilemma.

The Safety of Objects is based on a book of short stories by A. M. Homes. In adapting the stories for the screen, Troche has interwoven them, creating a tapestry not unlike that of such familiar titles as Short Cuts, Magnolia, and Happiness), although with a less finely detailed texture. The film introduces us to four families living in the same suburban neighborhood - the Golds, the Trains, the Jennings, and the Christiansons. The Golds have suffered a loss - their teenage son, Paul, a promising musician, lies in a coma in his bedroom, the result of a car accident. His mother, Esther (Glenn Close), pampers him to the extent of alienating her husband (Robert Klein) and daughter, Julie (Jessica Campbell). Meanwhile, Paul's middle-aged lover, Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson), is struggling to make ends meet to support her two young daughters. Jim Train (Dermont Mulroney) has become so obsessed with his job at a law firm that he disconnects with his wife, Susan (Moira Kelly), and their children. Finally, Helen Christianson (Mary Kay Place) is looking for a little excitement in her marriage - something her husband seems unwilling (or unable) to provide. The lives and stories frequently intersect as the movie makes its way towards a conclusion that attempts to bring a form of closure to all that has transpired.

Although the film tells a sporadically involving story, its narrative approach is not seamless. The stories centered around the Golds and Jennings are far more interesting than those involving the Trains and Christiansons, who often seem to be on hand just to fill in gaps. Some of Troche's humor comes across as out-of-place; there are instances in which characters are reduced to caricatures just for a laugh. Sequences featuring the infatuation of a pre-teen boy with a Barbie doll might work on the written page, but they seem awkward and unconvincing on screen.

In general, the dramatic foundation of The Safety of Objects is on solid ground. The thing that separates the aforementioned ensemble films from this one is the depth of the characterizations and the believability of the narrative flow. There's something superficial about the men and women populating this film, and the storyline proceeds in a fairly linear, expected direction. The Safety of Objects is not a complete waste of time, but it doesn't make us feel the way better dramas do, and, in the end, it lacks the qualities that would make it memorable or powerful.

Another movie that stays on the safe side of things, and results in an even less impressive viewing experience than The Safety of Objects is Bart Freundlich's misfire of a sophomore effort, World Traveler. Four years ago, Freundlich released his first feature film, The Myth of Fingerprints, a low key drama about a holiday family reunion. That production introduced Freundlich as a filmmaker to watch. Unfortunately, World Traveler is such a disappointment that it makes one wonder who is the real Freundlich - I suppose we'll have to wait until his third feature to assemble more evidence.

I wonder why anyone makes road pictures these days. If there's a genre that has been exhausted, this is it. Through the years, we've seen almost every imaginable kind of road picture. Nevertheless, that doesn't stop Freundlich from dipping his bucket into this dry well. He probably thinks he has something special, the kind of screenplay that will cause people to forget how banal and tiresome road pictures have become. Unfortunately, he's incorrect - World Traveler is a shallow and pretentious movie that is all the more irksome because it believes it's revealing some great human truths, when, in reality, it's churning ground that has long passed the point of being fertile.

Billy Crudup plays Cal, one of the most dislikable, self-pitying cretins to show up in a motion picture this year. Weighed down by his job and family pressures, Cal simply walks out on his wife and young son and begins traveling the country, trying to find himself. Cal then proceeds to "befriend" an alcoholic, whom he pushes off the wagon before attempting to seduce his wife. And that's just for starters... During the rest of his cross-country odyssey, Cal leaves a wake of broken hearts and ruined lives behind him.

It's difficult to know whether Freundlich expects us to sympathize with Cal. He certainly wants us to understand him. But the character is so shallowly written, and his dialogue is so inane, that it's virtually impossible to get a sense of who this man is, or why we should care about him. Billy Crudup does a credible job, as do Julianne Moore (Freundlich's wife) and James LeGros, who play two of several people who cross Cal's path, but more than solid acting is needed to save this motion picture.

The end of the film is its biggest disappointment. Without revealing specifics, I can say that it rings so false that its betrays whatever small kernels of truth Freundlich had uncovered along the way. World Traveler is a huge disappointment - the kind of motion picture that makes you actively angry at the filmmaker for subjecting you to it and stealing two hours of your life. Every film festival has its duds, and this is biggest one I have uncovered thus far at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival.

In contrast with The Safety of Objects and World Traveler is Prozac Nation, a motion picture that very definitely takes chances. The movie, directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg (Insomnia) and adapted from the book by Elizabeth Wurtzel, doesn't exactly go out on a tightrope, but it frequently veers away from safe ground, in large part due to a riveting performance by Christina Ricci.

For Ricci, this is the proverbial "labor of love", a motion picture she tirelessly pushed to get made (she receives a co-producer credit). Skjoldbjaerg may have directed, but Prozac Nation is being widely referred to as "Ricci's movie". Part of the reason for that is her intense behind the scenes participation. The other is the effort she puts forth in front of the camera - a powerhouse example of acting by a young woman who, just barely out of her teens, shows a greater understanding of her chosen craft than many veterans. In portraying Elizabeth Wurtzel, Ricci displays range, depth, and courage. One of the most telling scenes occurs early in the film, where Ricci is showing sitting topless on a bed. It's possible to argue that the nudity is unnecessary (although I certainly won't second-guess Skjoldbjaerg's decision to leave it in), but it goes a long way towards showing how much of herself Ricci was willing to put into this production. (For the record, this is her first topless scene.)

Ricci's performance is a big reason why Prozac Nation is as good as it is, but it's not the only reason. The script, adapted by the director from Wurtzel's autobiographical account of her young adulthood struggles with depression, strikes the perfect balance between dark comedy and pure drama, giving us a powerful portrait of how mental illness can sour every relationship in a person's life. During the course of the film, Elizabeth trashes her friendship with her roommate, Ruby (Michelle Williams), and her love affair with her boyfriend, Rafe (Jason Biggs). Her relationship with her mother (Jessica Lange) is a constant source of emotional turbulence, and her abandonment by her father (Nicholas Campbell) as a child plays a large part in her inability to trust men and her fear of being dumped.

Movies about mental illness and the drugs that are taken to cure them can easily devolve to the level of soap opera material. But Prozac Nation is more than a cut above, making otherwise decent films playing in the same arena (such as Girl Interrupted) seem formulaic by comparison. This movie delivers a gut-punch, doing a forceful job of getting the audience into the lead character's mind and giving us a clear, uncompromising perspective on the damage she does to others, and, most tragically, to herself. Every day, Lizzie wakes up in the morning and is afraid she's going to live while battling the gnawing need to find something to "turn off [her] head and turn on [her] heart."

Ricci is ably supported by a group of actors who are willing to fill their roles without attempting to steal the spotlight from her. Such attempts would have created awkward scenes, but there are none. Jessica Lange tones down her ordinary tendencies to go over the top, and gives us a moving portrayal of Lizzie's overprotective mother, who becomes the target of her daughter's verbal abuse on more than one occasion. Jason Biggs, the American Pie guy, and Michelle Williams, are solid as Lizzie's same-age companions. The only one who falls short in the acting category is Anne Heche, as Lizzie's psychiatrist. For whatever reason, Heche, whose blonde hair and pasty white skin make her look like a ghost, believed that a total lack of emotion was the proper way to play the part. As a result, almost every line of dialogue she speaks rings false. Next time, maybe she should study Lorraine Bracco in "The Soparanos."

Prozac Nation arrived at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival without a distributor, but it is almost sure to depart with one, and hopefully with a 2002 U.S. release date. With the right marketing, Ricci could earn an Oscar nomination for this role - the performance is more powerful than the one that earned Angelina Jolie her Supporting Actress statuette. Regardless of whether the film is eventually tabbed for any awards or not, this will rank as one of the most challenging pieces of acting turned in by an already-accomplished young actress, and as one of the most memorable motion pictures of the festival.

Then there's In the Bedroom, a movie whose buzz at Sundance carried it at the crest of a wave to Toronto, and will place it in theaters before the end of the year. A wrong turn on the drive between Salt Lake City and Park City caused me to miss the film in January; I did not repeat the fault in September. It was unquestionably worth the wait. In the Bedroom may not end up being the best film of the festival, but it will certainly be one of the highlights.

In the Bedroom is the feature debut of Todd Field, and deals with issues that are rarely approached with this degree of sensitivity on film. The movie takes place in Maine and stars Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek as Frank and Ruth Fowler, a seemingly perfect middle-aged couple. Their only son, Frank (Nick Stahl), is spending the summer on a boat lobstering before going off to an Ivy League school in the fall. His latest girlfriend, Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), is a much older woman with two young children. These characters are bound together when a criminal act results in a tragedy.

The movie is close to flawless in the way it develops the scenario. The first portions effectively develop the characters in a way that draws the audience into the story. The crime is presented in a stark and shocking fashion, and its multi-faceted impact is detailed in a manner that is as non-manipulative as it is powerful. In the Bedroom shows how the pressure of a tragedy can put strain on even the most solid marriage. Between Frank and Ruth, their quiet camaraderie gradually dissolves into anger and recrimination. One explosive confrontation between them leads directly to an action that brings catharsis and closure to one of them while causing the other to engage in deeper soul-searching.

The movie also presents some of the most poignant reminders of the little things that often cause the greatest pain in the wake of a tragedy. The narrative moves forward, gathering momentum as it moves along, and never wavering as it moves towards the perhaps-inevitable climax. In the Bedroom also addresses the frustration and anguish of crime victims, especially in cases when the perpetrators of a crime appear beyond the reach of legal punishment. The tendency in motion pictures these days is to develop sympathy for the criminal; it is rare that a film addresses the other side of the equation with this degree of intelligence and sensitivity.

The performances are all astonishing. Wilkinson, perhaps best known for his work in The Full Monty, imbues Frank with a quiet dignity, a deep wellspring of grief, and a simmering fury. Sissy Spacek presents Ruth as a volcano that lies dormant for a while before erupting. Nick Stahl brings depth and strength to a character that could have turned into a one-dimensional type. Marisa Tomei impresses in yet another supporting role far away from the Hollywood spotlight (although her inconsistent New England accent is a little distracting).

In the Bedroom is the kind of motion picture that it's almost impossible to forget. It has an impact that stays with the viewer long after the theater has been vacated - this is a hallmark of a powerful movie. It epitomizes what an American independent film can be when the director is willing to abandon the safety net.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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