TIFF ’17 Day 2: Stronger, The Insult, What Will People Say

Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger.

Stronger (USA, 2017. Dir: David Gordon Green): This year’s second feature inspired by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings approaches the matter from an individual perspective. The film zeroes on Jeff Bouman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a flaky Bostonian who loses both his legs in the blast. The film covers Bouman’s rehabilitation and his relationship with his ex-girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany), who was the reason Jeff was at the race in the first place.

Even though the direction and acting are top notch (although the Boston-personality traits border the caricature), Stronger is a very standard affair: Every beat can be seen from a mile away. The movie hints at the emptiness of platitudes like “Boston Strong”, but doesn’t have the dramatic courage to quite go there. The most subdued characters (Maslany, Carlos Sanz as the man who saved Bouman’s life) are the brightest ones.

Stronger also flirts with the notion that no matter what major event, sooner or later people return to their default settings (once a screw-up, always a screw-up). Predictably, it folds on itself by the third act. All things considered, as meat-and-potatoes dramas go, you could do a lot worse. Two and a half planets. Distribution in Canada: Theatrical.

The Insult (Lebanon/France, 2016. Dir: Ziad Doueiri): A classic festival film (a movie that thrives in this kind of environment, but is unlikely to flourish outside), The Insult deals with a specific rift in the Arab world, one that doesn’t get much attention: The strain between Christians and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Tony is a mechanic with a simmering resentment against Palestinians, which flares up when an illegal contractor starts working on his block. A spat over a drain escalates when the worker insults Tony, the mechanic responds with a racial slur, and the contractor punches him in the ribs. Soon the justice system, the press and even the President of Lebanon get involved.

Despite some minor issues (the score is -to put it charitably- blunt; one of the twists is soap opera-worthy), The Insult remains firmly grounded in reality, even as the squabble spirals out of control. The approach to the matter is refreshingly earnest, even when the conflict is ripe for cynicism and irony. I was slightly distracted by the very attractive actress playing Tony’s wife (she is the spitting image of Emily Ratajkowski), but that’s on me.

Three and a half planets. Distribution in Canada: Likely theatrical.

What Will People Say (Norway/Germany/Sweden. Dir: Iram Haq): Scandinavian cinema tends to look at the subject du jour directly, never mind how controversial it may be. What Will People Say is a veritable minefield, but writer/director Iram Haq’s vision doesn’t compromise… until the last three minutes of the movie

Nisha (newcomer Maria Mozhdah) is the eldest daughter of a traditional Pakistani family living in Norway. While respectful of her heritage, Nisha has grown as an average Westerner teen. Her two worlds come into conflict when her father finds a boy in her bedroom. Shunned by her family and community, Nisha is forcefully relocated to Pakistan. Her attempts to reach out for help are regularly thwarted by her relatives and a misplaced sense of loyalty.

Regardless of the number of setbacks Nisha must face, What Will People Say never feels like misery porn. In fact, it’s gripping. Every mishap, every poor decision is firmly rooted in reality, which is why the denouement stroke me as false. On a bad movie, I wouldn’t mind. The problem is that What Will People Say flirts with greatness. Four planets. Distribution in Canada: TBD.

 

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