Toronto: Home is where the hell is

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A movie called I Killed My Mother isn't going to appeal to a certain demographic—I'm pretty sure about this. And yet, hearing the sniffles (and ultimately, robust applause) that greeted writer-director Xavier Dolan's comic drama about a surly French teen and his suburban single mom, you could be pursuaded into thinking the film was, indeed, for the carpool-to-mall set. Anchored by two unsparingly direct performances by the 20-year-old Dolan (he also edited) and feisty Anne Dorval, the film doesn't skimp on the screaming. It's also a coming-out drama and postdivorce anxiety tale. But a resilient bond emerges from the crucible of a broken home and a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. Taking the wider view, this year's Toronto was marked by treatments of spirituality (the Coens' A Serious Man, Bruno Dumont's absorbing Hadewijch, the extraordinary Lourdes), but perhaps it was domestic abuse, literal and figurative, that proved the deeper thread. There were plenty more films that turned family into a nightmare. Wouldn't you expect as much from Todd Solondz?

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

Solondz, the provocateur of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Storytelling, has become more optimistic, more sympathetic, with age—perhaps by just a hair, but still. A curious case, indeed, of a director growing less cynical over time. Life During Wartime, the new one, is still a dark film, even savage, in its Floridian update of the ruined characters from Solondz's 1998 breakthrough, Happiness. Pedophilia hangs like an albatross over the Maplewoods (all of them played by different actors). Even though Allison Janney's Trish has moved from Jersey with the kids, she can't help spooking her bar-mitzvah-boy-to-be, Timmy, into a certain complex about sexual intimacy. ("I never want anything to go in me, ever," he insists, scarily.) This is one seriously messed-up clan, yet Solondz has modulated his contempt into a kind of acceptance, especially with his supporting roles: a magnificently passive-aggressive Ally Sheedy and self-lacerating Charlotte Rampling as a hotel hookup. The film isn't a fully formed success, but this was fresh stuff from a director I thought had calcified.

Other mothers seems totally lost in the fog. Isabelle Huppert is the only character in Claire Denis's White Material who can't hear the warnings that her unnamed African country is about to get unsafe for plantation-owning whites, and that her family is in danger. By the film's end, when the bad things do happen and she melts down, it's hard to stifle a duh. You could call the character house proud; to me, she's an ostrich and hard to take for real. Gifted actor Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown) stepped behind the camera for the sincere and affecting The Unloved, reportedly autobiographical and filled with terrible adult license. Still, all of these characters are saints compared to the monsters of Dogtooth (below), a mind-blowing alternate future (?) from Greece's Giorgos Lanthimos. A family of three animalistic teenage children live a completely sheltered existence in a walled-off home with their parents. They lick and bite each other, compete furiously in the swimming pool and seem to have no concept of the outside world. (One bizarre dance scene filled with Flashdance moves suggests that blockbuster films have become ritualistic texts.) You watch Dogtooth and your jaw hits the floor; either something really bad has happened to civilization—incest is on the menu—or Lanthimos is taking terror culture to its Orwellian omega. You must see this film, then call your mother. (Kino picked up the distribution during the fest, so there's hope.)


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