As we continue our coverage of TIFF, here’s a blast from this past weekend. We somehow managed to see three movies on TIFF Day 4–that was three more movies than we watched on Day 3–and they all seemed to share an unintentional link in that all three are by women filmmakers who got a lot of attention with their previous movies and were coming to TIFF with movies that would be getting a lot of attention due to expectations for their follow-ups.
The screenplay for Sarah Polley’s drama Away from Her received an Oscar nomination and she returns with Take This Waltz, an original drama starring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby. It’s been quite a bit longer since Jennifer Westfeldt starred in Kissing Jessica Stein and she brought TIFF her directorial debut Friends with Kids, a comedy co-starring Adam Scott and a good chunk of the cast from Bridesmaids. In turn, Lynn Shelton brought her follow-up to Humpday called Your Sister’s Sister, which stars Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass.
Oddly, only the last of these three have received distribution at the time of this writing.
Take This Waltz
Written and directed by Sarah Polley
Starring Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Aaron Abrams, Jennifer Podemiski, Vanessa Coelho
Having blown so many people away a few years back with “Away from Her,” a look at aging and Alzheimer’s, actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley returns to her hometown festival with a lot of excitement about whether she can deliver another drama just as strong. This time, she really went for it with an original script about relationships and infidelity, working with a group of 20-something actors that make for a stark contrast to the older actors in her debut.
Michelle Williams’ Margo is a Toronto native who has been in a loyal marriage to the jovial cook Lou (Seth Rogen) for five years, though she’s unhappy and she feels something’s missing. When she meets Luke Kirby’s Daniel while on a business trip, the two of them flirt harmlessly, but when it happens that Daniel lives across the road, things get a bit more serious as Margo spends more time with him and thinks seriously about having sex with him.
What might have been a fairly simple story of a woman deciding on whether to have an affair with a man she just met or to remain faithful to her husband ends up being an incredibly powerful piece of filmmaking due to Polley’s desire to tell this story in an unconventional but honest way. Like the best (and worst) romantic comedies, “Take This Waltz” plays with the art of flirtation and keeps one guessing whether they will or won’t hook up, although it’s done in a far more serious way, since Margo doesn’t want to hurt Lou.
It’s a fairly daring film in that sense because this type of story is such a staple for studio romance films that it’s refreshing to get one that truly feels real.
There’s probably no point lavishing more praise on Michelle Williams for the role, which is absolutely pivotal to the movie working, but she gives a performance as brilliant as anything she’s done before, turning Margo into a very real three-dimensional person. In fact, that might be one of the few things that really holds the film back because she only recently did the same in another movie about relationships, “Blue Valentine,” which was handled in a similarly dreamlike manner.
Luke Kirby’s Daniel is somewhat vexing, because he’s one of those guys who is so overly-charismatic and charming, always able to say exactly the right thing at the right time and give them the type of looks that gets women all gushy. Essentially, he’s the exact opposite of the majority of movie critics and fans, which may be why most guys will be rooting for her to work things out with the far more affable Lou. For the first time in his career, Rogen is playing a fairly straight dramatic role in this. There are moments that allow him to introduce humor, mostly from their playful relationship, but he doesn’t have any problem handling the heavy lifting when things get serious in the second half.
Sarah Silverman plays Lou’s alcoholic sister who has been in recovery for nearly a year, and she’s also playing things a lot more seriously than we’ve ever seen her, though it’s a character that doesn’t seem necessary to give a callback to late in the film. The few attempts at straight humor do get laughs, but they seem somewhat oddly shoehorned into the drama. There are also plenty of quirks and eccentricities in the characters whether it’s Margo’s need to take a wheelchair to the plane despite being perfectly capable of walking or Daniel’s job as a rickshaw driver or the fact Lou is writing a cookbook on how to cook chicken. Polley never worries about modesty when it comes to nudity or sex and even has Williams and Silverman talking in the women’s shower after swimming, both of them completely naked for the entire scene along with the significantly older and fatter women.
The use of the Leonard Cohen song from which Polley got the movie’s title in a significant montage may be somewhat obvious although it’s countered by The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which might not be quite so much, though it plays quite an integral part in how things play out. Polley made a few other odd choices like not actually mentioning any of the names of the characters until roughly halfway into the movie, not even the leads.
“Take This Waltz” shows incredible maturity for Polley as a filmmaker and while it might not be as easy to accept wholeheartedly due to its more eccentric moments and because it does hold its “artfilm” banner high, it once again proves her talents both for writing riveting dialogue and for being able to get unforgettable performances from her actors.
Friends with Kids
Written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt
Starring Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm, Megan Fox, Kristen Wiig, Edward Burns, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd
Every once in a while, TIFF premieres a movie that isn’t necessarily about awards or arthouse fodder, but is actually a movie that can be a bonafide hit with the right marketing. Ten years after having just such an indie hit with her script and starring role in “Kissing Jessica Stein,” Jennifer Westfeldt makes her directorial debut with an incredibly relatable movie, whether you have kids or not. It certainly doesn’t hurt that a good chunk of her cast are coming off one of the summer’s biggest hit comedies “Bridesmaids” either.
Jason and Julie (Adam Scott, Westfeldt) have been best friends for much of their life and they’ve remained single, going through the dating life while the friends around them get married. After meeting all of them at a dinner where pregnancies are announced. Four years later, their married friends are generally miserable so Jason and Julie come up with the idea that the best way to have a kid is with someone you’re not married to and they make a pact to do just that.
That’s the basic premise of a movie that comes off as a lighter, fluffier and female-friendly version of a Judd Apatow comedy that doesn’t necessarily tone down the raunch to protect women’s “delicate sensibilities.” No, this deals honestly with inter-gender friendships, relationships and raising kids via a mish-mash of comedy genders that creates a lot of potential for situational humor.
The biggest reason the movie works so well is Westfeldt herself, since she’s constantly warm and likeable as a leading lady, far more than some of the more prominent actresses doing studio rom-coms. The same can be said for Adam Scott as a leading man, and it’s not even remotely surprising they work together as well as they do, playing friends who can talk to each other about anything, whether it’s dating or their private parts. Jason is there for Julie, not only to get her pregnant in a funny but awkward bedroom scene, but also to help her through the pregnancy and take care of their resulting son Joe 50% of the time.
Westfeldt has assembled quite an incredible cast of talented actors around herself and Scott, her real-life husband Jon Hamm once again being paired with Kristen Wiig, only this time they’re married with Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd playing the other couple. Although the relationships are switched around, all four actors are just as funny as they were in “Bridesmaids,” though in this case, O’Dowd really stands out as the husband who can do nothing right for his wife. Hamm ends up coming off like the weakest link even with Wiig playing down her part in the humor for this one. As good as Scott and Westfeldt work together, the movie is a lot more fun when they’re with these friends, but that’s really only at the very beginning and briefly towards the end.
Eventually, Julie gets back out into the dating pool and meets the too-good-to-be-true Kurt (Edward Burns) and they start a serious relationship, while Jason meets an incredibly attractive dancer (Megan Fox) while walking Joe through Central Park. The problem is that Jason and Julie are still close due to their shared care of Joe and as one might expect, this arrangement is doomed to failure.
As the film goes along, it starts to veer further into traditional romantic comedy territory as well as getting more dramatic. As one might expect, this arrangement is doomed to failure and it eventually creates a wedge between Jason and Julie and they go their separate ways. While it’s somewhat predictable where things will end up, the last act proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Adam Scott is just as strong as a dramatic actor as he is when being funny.
“Friends with Kids” may be the most accessible and marketable movie we’ve seen at this year’s TIFF. That’s by no means a bad thing since Jennifer Westfeldt once again proves she has a way of examining aspects of everyday life that can be appreciated even by those not in that same situation.
Your Sister’s Sister (IFC Films)
Written and directed by Lynn Shelton
Starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt, Mark Duplass
Lynn Shelton’s sequel to “Humpday” doesn’t veer too far away from the tone and themes of her previous film, although she clearly has stepped things up with far better production values and a couple bigger names in the cast, as she once again explores a complex love triangle.
It’s been a year since the death of Tom, and at a gathering of his friends to commemorate the anniversary of his death, his brother Jack (Mark Duplass) is still quite broken up about it, so his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who once dated Tom, convinces him to ride his bike to her family’s retreat to spend some time alone. There, he encounters Iris’ older sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), they get drunk and fall into bed, which might not seem unusual if not for the fact that Hannah is a lesbian who retreated to the house after breaking up with her long-time girlfriend. We won’t give too much away about how the relationships evolve from there, but when Iris shows up at the retreat, Jack and Hannah do their best to keep their indiscretion a secret from her.
As with “Humpday,” Shelton keeps things simple with just three main roles and no one else, and both Rosemarie Dewitt and Emily Blunt easily acclimate themselves to Shelton’s way of working, making one think the movie may have been somewhat more scripted. It’s also obvious how no other director has been able to get such great work from Mark Duplass than Shelton, and she’s able to capture all his humorous asides and reaction shots and use them to best effect especially in the scenes where all three actors are together.
In some ways, the location makes “Your Sister’s Sister” feel a bit more like Duplass’ own movie “Baghead” sans the horror elements, and Shelton goes a bit further away from the lo-fi shoestring budget aesthetic of “Humpday” with a number of establishing shots to set the environment of this remote island where the drama plays out.
It does get a bit heavy towards the end, though you never get the impression that Shelton wants to leave her audience on a downer note, instead setting things up for one of those ambiguous cold stop endings that’s actually more satisfying than those normally are.
With “Your Sister’s Sister,” Shelton has clearly found her legging in order to create something that stays true to her indie ethics and the way she’s worked in the past, while also creating something that can be accessible to wider audiences.
Look for more review from the Toronto International Film Festival over the next few days.