1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #2:
"A Quick Look at a Few Early Galas"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 10, 1999

Regardless of the festival, Opening Night is always a gala event, and Toronto is no exception. In programming their Opening Night film, festival director Piers Handling and his group anually seek a high-profile effort with Canadian origins. Because of these constraints, there have been times in the past when the Opening Night offering has not been strong, but in 1999, for the third consecutive year, the festival begins the way it should: with a memorable, home-grown production. Two years ago, the choice was Atom Egoyan's devastating The Sweet Hereafter. Last year, it was The Red Violin. This year, it's Egoyan's latest, Felicia's Journey, which had its world primiere at Cannes in May. (Toronto does not require that the Opening Night film be a world premiere -- although this is Felicia's Journey's North American debut.)

Felicia's Journey is Egoyan's third best picture of the '90s. For many filmmakers, who have trouble developing three watchable productions in a decade, that wouldn't be saying much, but, considering the two movies that stand above this one (Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter), it's understandable. For the director, Felicia's Journey is something of a departure (although not in terms of tone, style, and theme). Egoyan went on the road to make the movie, doing all the filming across the Atlantic, and working with a cast primarily comprised of actors he had never worked with before (the lone exception being his wife, Arsinée Khanjian, who has been in all of his features).

Felicia's Journey, a deliberately paced, atmospheric thriller, concentrates on two characters. They are Joe Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a middle-aged catering manager, and Felicia (Eileen Cassidy), a teenager from Ireland who has arrived in England looking for her boyfriend. She's a stranger with nothing more than a vague sense of geography to go on until she meets Hilditch, who offers her aid and advice. But his motives are not as pure as they first appear to be, and it soon becomes clear that Hilditch is a dangerous individual, especially where young girls are concerned.

Egoyan's films often center on emotionally damaged individuals, and Felicia's Journey is no exception. Both leads suffer from deeply-rooted traumas that manifest themselves in different ways. One of the things that occurred to me as I was watching Felicia's Journey was how, with just a little tweaking, this could be made into a conventional Hollywood thriller. That version of Felicia's Journey would have been routine, obvious, bland, and exploitative. This one is impossible to predict, ingeniously constructed, and psychologically keen. In short, Egoyan has subverted the genre by focusing on characters rather than plot, and by allowing the tension to build gradually and naturally instead of using slick, manipulative devices to manufacture it. And, because he approaches the subject matter with sensitivity and tact, he is able to address a thorny issue like pedophilia. The climax, when it arrives, is searing, and completely consistent with what we have come to expect from these characters. There's no question that Hollywood would have ordered a re-write.

Those who find Felicia's Journey to be too dark and depressing a trip will find something lighter and more enjoyable in another Gala, Pip Karmel's Me Myself I. In fact, one of the problems with this movie is that it's almost too inconsequential. It has a potentially fascinating premise - how would a person's life be different if they made one significant change? - but Karmel's handling of it results in a mundane story that is enlivened only through the strong performance by lead actress Rachel Griffiths and our inherent interest in the basic setup.

Griffiths plays Pam Drury, a thirty-something journalist whose biological clock is ticking. Despite being successful and well-respected, Pam is not happy. Single and living alone, she's feeling the absence of a husband and children, and, with each passing day and dead-end date, she recalls with regret a marriage proposal she turned down 13 years ago. One morning, as she's crossing a street, she's hit by a car. When the driver gets out to check her, Pam comes face-to-face with... herself. This other Pam is the woman who accepted the marriage proposal, and now has that husband and children. By unspoken agreement, the two Pams elect to change places and see what they missed.

The point of Me Myself I is that we should learn to be content with what we have rather than pining for what might have been. That's not an original message, and it's delivered with too little subtlety. Because Karmel wants to keep the tone light, she steers clear of any somber or cumbersome questions. As a result, the narrative has a straightforward, uncomplicated trajectory. The specifics of the plot are the staples of generic self-discovery motion pictures. Nevertheless, despite its weaknesses, Me Myself I is not an unpleasant motion picture to sit through, and it is capable of providing a reasonably pleasant break from the festival's numerous weightier offerings.

Another Gala represents one of the festival's strongest entries, and what is likely destined to be one of the Fall's best releases (although it's questionable how it will perform at the box office). And, since it's due to open in New York on September 15 (wider on September 24), non-festival goers won't have long to wait for it. I'm referring to Sam Mendes' American Beauty, a dark comedy/drama that takes an unflinching look at what lurks beneath the façade of American suburban life.

Most teenagers think their parents are strange, but, in the case of Jane Burnham (Thora Birch), this is as much a state of reality as it is a state of mind. Her father, Lester (Kevin Spacey), is suffering through a mid-life crisis, and her mother, Carolyn (Annette Bening), places such value on status that she has no time for any form of intimacy. She and Lester continue in their dead marriage so they'll look normal to the outside world. American Beauty is about the ways in which these characters grow, and the catalysts that break them out of their near-catatonic existences. It's also about the emotional paralysis that comes with age and security.

American Beauty is the first feature film directed by Mendes, who has an extensive background in theater, but displays a sureness that many veteran filmmakers are unable to match. He is ably assisted by his three leads - Spacey, Bening, and Birch - all of whom give strong, effectively pitched performances. The movie doesn't trailblaze a path into hitherto untouched cinematic territory, but its presentation of vivid characters in interesting situations makes the story seem fresh. In part because it's not a complete downer and in part because it doesn't cheat the audience, American Beauty is emotionally satisfying. That alone is a good reason to make it part of this year's cinematic festival meal.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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