All the mothers of TIFF 2019

There are many problems for mothers in this year’s Toronto film festival movies, but Jay Stone finds that his real-life mother is still going strong

By Jay Stone


TORONTO — The other night I played hooky from the Toronto film festival to have dinner with my mother, who lives in north Toronto. She’s 97, but she’s in terrific shape. She works out every day at the gym, and, as she tells it, the people at the retirement home are less amazed by the fact that she can still get down to stretch on the Pilates ball than they are by the fact that she can get back up.


This gives me a tremendous genetic advantage in life: Robert Benchley once wrote that one of the keys to a long life is to keep one’s parents alive, at gunpoint if necessary. It also gives me a huge edge over a lot of people in movies at the festival, many of which feature plots revolving around mothers who have just died, although they continue to haunt their offspring with varying dramatic success.

We start with The Goldfinch, John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s sprawling — not to say overstuffed — 2013 novel (and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, so not everyone shares my opinion). It turns out to be a sprawling — not to say overstuffed — film whose fidelity to the book underlines all its problems.


It’s about a boy named Theo (played at various ages by Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort) whose mother dies in an explosion at a New York City art gallery. The boy is thus launched into a peripatetic life, first adopted by a privileged New York family, headed by a coolly compassionate Nicole Kidman, then hauled off to Las Vegas by a reprobate father (Luke Wilson), then moving back to New York and later to Amsterdam.


Along the way he becomes involved in the antique furniture business, the result of a fortuitous meeting in the ashes of the explosion. It’s one of many coincidences — most accompanied by unlikely and unfocussed characters — that the movie uses to shape its rambling plot. It reminded me of one of those digressive John Irving novels that used to be all the rage. You expect to see a bear at any moment.


The film, which clocks in at an unforgiveable two and a half hours, includes among its crimes a young Ukrainian whom Theo encounters in a Las Vegas suburb, a hustler and drug-dealer who speaks with a vaudeville Russian accent the likes of which we haven’t heard since Boris Badenov was plotting against squirrel and moose in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. Nevertheless, the hordes who loved the novel may be transported by the movie’s dogged adherence to its forced march through the edges of American society.


After a poor night’s sleep, things improved only marginally the next day with Guest of Honour, the latest movie from one-time festival darling Atom Egoyan. This turned out to be another baffling load of malarkey, the story of Jim (David Thewlis) a recently deceased food inspector who — in flashbacks and also in flashbacks-within-flashbacks —goes around to a series of filthy restaurants looking at rat droppings and stained kitchenware. We never learn how Jim died, but it could have been from eating at one of his stops.


His story, an intriguing opportunity for Egoyan to indulge one of his pet themes of appearances versus reality, is narrated by his daughter, a former high school music teacher named Veronica (Laysla de Oliveira), who is visiting a priest (Luke Wilson again!) to arrange the funeral. Veronica is coping with her mother’s death from cancer, and with her father’s apparent infidelity, by becoming involved in a majestically unlikely case of sexual impropriety with a student.


This also turns out to be the motivator of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the Mr. Rogers film about a magazine writer embittered by the fact that his father cheated on his mother while she was dying. He needs Mr. Rogers’ philosophy about caring and forgiving to realize that all of us are flawed.


Flawed mothers also danced across the screens at the festival: Renee Zellweger’s Judy Garland in Judy, for instance, who cares deeply for her young children despite a crippling addiction to alcohol and pills that keep her from providing such things as a reliable home life; or the women in Hustlers who try to balance motherhood with the demands of dancing with most of their clothes off at strip clubs, a job that combines long hours with abbreviated moral qualms.


My own mother would make a pretty good movie too. At dinner she told me she figured out that if she died at 100, I would be an orphan at 75. I just hope she lives forever because, frankly, at my age, I can’t see how I’ll ever get adopted.


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