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‘It: Chapter Two’ is Painfully Long yet Brimming with Ambition

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At 135 minutes, It: Chapter One covers only the childhood half of Stephen King’s magnum opus, saving the adult portion for the sequel, set twenty-seven years later. The decision to split the movie in two was a wise move on the part of the studio, as it gave the filmmakers more time to flesh out both the story and the large cast of characters. But with a nearly three-hour run time, It: Chapter Two is a full thirty-five minutes longer than Chapter One, begging the question: how much time did the filmmakers really need?

I hate to start on a negative note, but at a bloated 170 minutes, the length of Chapter Two becomes a major stumbling block that must be addressed. Where director Andy Muschietti’s vision for the first movie perfectly recaptures the novel’s supernatural terror and childhood bonding, It: Chapter Two moves fast — maybe too fast — and yet, it never quite captures the weight of its nearly three-hour runtime. You’d figure that an additional thirty-five minutes would give the storytellers more time to flesh out the characters, the relationships, the backstory, and the supernatural entity at the center of Derry, but instead, the film feels frustratingly thin — and, dare I say, self-indulgent. The final result is a mixed bag in which your patience is tested, your attention brought to bear, and your precious time demanded.

Still, there’s also a lot to love here.

The problem with flashbacks…

The narrative of It: Chapter Two is pretty-straightforward, and anyone who’s seen the first film, watched the original TV series, and/or has read the book knows what to expect. Minus a few key sequences, such as the controversial sewer orgy, Gary Dauberman’s script is mostly faithful to the heart of King’s story. When Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard) returns to picturesque Derry, the seven (well, really six) people who defeated him in 1989 must return to their hometown to defeat the horrible creature and bring his reign of terror, once and for all, to an end.

As the group reunites in Maine, the proceedings are padded by extended flashbacks as the now-adult members of the Losers Club struggle to rebuild the bonds they forged as children, as all but one (Mike) experiences temporary memory loss. It turns out that moving away from Maine has somehow made their memories foggy, and now it’s up to Mike to find a way to make them remember those horrific clown-related encounters that have vanished from their consciousness.

 
 

The film’s focus on these flashbacks sometimes works to its advantage, and sometimes to its detriment. The upside is that these dream sequences allow the charismatic and talented young actors who previously played the characters to return in It: Chapter Two, and as with the first film, some of the best parts of It: Chapter Two have nothing to do with the cackling manifestations of the murderous Pennywise, but rather with the camaraderie, bickering, and curiosity among these kids. The teenagers get a fair amount of screen time here, reminding us of the sparkling chemistry of the lively young cast. Unfortunately, the downside is that these endless flashbacks are the biggest culprit in stretching out the film’s running time; if you cut them out entirely, we would most likely be left with a two-hour movie.

When we bury our feelings, we bury who we are…

Where, It: Chapter One uses the fight against Pennywise as a metaphor for the characters facing their deepest fears as they enter adulthood, Chapter Two tackles themes of memory and childhood trauma, exploring the loss of innocence decades after our heroes faced off against the creepy, dancing clown with outsize yellow teeth, a high-pitched squeak of a voice, and a habit of eating kids. And like Chapter One, Chapter Two deals with grief, insecurities, trauma, and guilt. These characters may be older, but they continue to be haunted by their own personal demons, and they have ways to go before they can ever heal.

James McAvoy plays Bill Denbrough, now a best-selling mystery novelist who married a movie star (Jess Weixler), but is still not over the death of his little brother, Georgie. Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer trapped in an abusive marriage. Jay Ryan is the once-bullied, overweight Ben, who’s currently an architect and looks hotter than “a team of Brazilian soccer players,” but never quite got over his childhood crush, and still carries around Beverly’s signature from a page in his yearbook. James Ransone is the hypochondriac Eddie, who grew up to be a terrifyingly high-strung adult. Bill Hader is the foul-mouthed smart-aleck Richie Tozier, a now-famous standup comedian who doesn’t write his own material. Andy Bean stars as Stanley, still the weakest of the bunch and still trying to get his life in order, and last but not least, Isaiah Mustafa stars as Mike Hanlon, the only member of the Losers Club who remained in Derry. He’s the town librarian, and the only one who clearly remembers Pennywise. They’ve grown into restless adults, each of them scarred by the events of their past, and now the seven (really six) must search out and destroy It. And the only way they can defeat the clown is if they work together.

James McAvoy’s Bill might be the story’s beating heart, but Chapter Two really belongs to Ritchie. Hader’s spin on Richie is easily the film’s standout, since no other actor better matches their younger counterpart than him. He pretty much nails every line of dialogue, and the subtle subplot about his secret desires carries more emotional weight than expected. Meanwhile, Mustafa (best known as the Old Spice guy) has an impressive breakout as Mike, while Teach Grant’s offbeat turn as Henry Bowers (an escapee from a psychiatric ward) brings equal scares and laughs. The rest of the cast is fine, although the adult group doesn’t demonstrate the same level chemistry as their younger selves, as we’re reminded by the narrative lift we feel each time we are shown a flashback.

Here comes the horror…

Regardless of how you feel about the near-three-hour running time, the good news is that It: Chapter Two packs enough suspense and genuine scares to satisfy even the biggest horror hounds. It really is at times terrifying, and features three if not four scenes that are as good as the astonishing visual centerpiece of the first film. For a movie classified as ‘horror,’ It: Chapter Two features some thrilling setpieces punctuated by each of the character’s deepest and darkest fears, including a claustrophobic encounter in a mirrored funhouse, an even more catastrophic sequence that jumps between a shocking hallucination that sees Jessica Chastain drenched in more blood than Johnny Depp in A Nightmare On Elm Street, and a scene in which Jay Ryan sinks deep into the earth.

Another highlight comes when Chastain’s Beverly visits her childhood home looking to reunite with her father, only to be greeted by an elderly woman named Mrs. Kersh (Joan Gregson) who insists she come in for tea. As Beverly awkwardly tries to stir up a conversation, Mrs. Kersh becomes momentarily paralyzed. The expression on her face here is far more frightening than what comes next. Meanwhile, a reunion at an Asian restaurant is one of the movie’s best scenes, showcasing Hader’s comedic flair and introducing the first of many digitally enhanced effects used to realize Pennywise’s grotesque transformations, including a later nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s here that the grown-up Losers are quickly reminded of the terrifying shape-shifting abilities of Pennywise the clown. It’s stuff like this that makes It: Chapter Two well worth seeing.

Make no mistake, Chapter Two does earn its R rating, and like the first film, the greatest asset is still Bill Skarsgård as the sadistic, child-chomping, demonic clown. There really is something special about watching him twitch, crawl, shriek, and work his way into the minds of the children of Derry. Amidst the movie’s many monstrosities, the shapeshifter is by far the most menacing, best exemplified in one single shot where he appears out of disguise as a man simply covering his face in clown paint. It’s all good stuff thanks to the first-rate special effects, gross-out visuals, and Checco Varese’s gorgeous and dreamy cinematography, which conveys a sense of danger even in the bright daylight.

About that cold opening…

The first horror we witness in this second installment, however, is oddly the most terrifying — and also the most troublesome µ scene of Chapter Two. The scene in question details a grotesque act of homophobic violence against a gay couple (played by Taylor Frey and Canadian director Xavier Dolan) that transitions to the first appearance of the now-iconic red balloon and the words “Come Home” scrawled in blood under the bridge before Pennywise himself appears. What this has to do with the main story is unclear, except to maybe serve as a reminder that Pennywise isn’t the only monster residing in Derry. But while the hate crime is true to the book and based on the real-life 1984 drowning of Charlie Howard, the scene is confusing in this context, and feels tonally out of place with the rest of the film, as the filmmakers never bother to revisit neither the scene nor the characters to give it any sort of closure.

But it’s not just the cold opening that feels disjointed and tonally out of place — the ending does as well. 170 minutes is plenty of time to build to a satisfying climax, but It: Chapter Two concludes the nearly six-hour, two-movie saga without much in the way of surprises. Worse is that screenwriter Gary Dauberman beats you over the head with meta-joke after meta-joke about how Stephen King never quite knows how to nail an ending, and in case you missed it, King even pops up just to reinforce this fact, which only further reinforces just how disappointing the climax really is.

The film needs a better ending…

For better or for worse, It stands out as one of the rare films that have attempted to remain as true as possible to the source material. However, I can’t help but think Andy Muschietti had a chance to trim some fat, not feel the need to resolve every subplot, nor cram in another anti-climactic, big-budget action-movie spectacle which not only sucks the life and imagination out of the film, but isn’t the slightest bit scary. There’s a lot to like here, as It: Chapter Two oozes with spectacular scenery, stupefying effects, an epic score, and plenty of nerve-jangling scenes that will have viewers shrieking, but Chapter Two is also painfully long, and could use a better ending. In between the odd prologue and the disappointing climax is roughly two hours of well-crafted filmmaking and fifty minutes of excess.

  • Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Examines a Criminal’s Upbringing

Justin Kurzel’s latest film boasts a great supporting cast, and applies a gritty aesthetic to one of Australia’s most renowned criminals.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s latest film — a fictionalized version of the story of Ned Kelly — takes an Australian outlaw and attempts to humanize and emphasize the importance of taking your life in your own hands. Bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast, another great score by Jed Kurzel, a gritty attitude, and fantastic final act, True History of the Kelly Gang is a movie that will best be remembered for its moments — not the narrative in between. Focused heavily on the character work, Kurzel delivers a satisfying enough period drama that demands a lot from its actors in order to provide nuance in a fairly standard biopic structure that builds to a blistering climax and somber finale.

A tale of criminals being the heroes to the oppressed, True History of the Kelly Gang takes its time warming the audience to who Ned Kelly (George MacKay) ultimately becomes, and why he was revered by others in the community. Beginning with his childhood (and literally featuring diegetic intertitles that state “Boy” and “Man” when their respective segments begin), the film explores Kelly’s upbringing from his Irish immigrant family, led by matriarch Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a very potent, voracious performance), and her many decisions that lead to Ned’s ultimate notoriety. More aptly, Ellen finds herself juggling father figures, as well as who she wants her son to become, while attempting to drown out any of her husband’s proclivities and vices.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Ned logs his adventures throughout and starts telling his own story for the ones he loves to read when he eventually passes. “Every man should be the author of his own story” is a mantra Kelly holds onto, and it frames the film for Kurzel into something more singular, only occasionally looking at how others may portray Kelly’s story. That being said, True History of the Kelly Gang flows in a very linear-fashion, and often feels like it’s just going through the motions in order to get to the next big moment. Even with early appearances from Russell Crowe (in a role that is a lot of fun to watch him chew on) and Charlie Hunnam, the film often feels like it knows where it wants to go, but has a runtime to pad out before it feels right to get there. The script surrounds Ned with violence and tough decisions, which work in the moment, but getting to them is sometimes a chore.

Moments are what keep True History of the Kelly Gang interesting. While the main villain (played exceptionally by Nicholas Hoult) keeps the film strung together as he chases Ned throughout Australia, the journey never transcends the crafting of individual scenes. Whether it’s Hoult’s character’s sly trickery and deceit that unfold and enrapture, a tough decision that either leads to violence or trouble (but never a more virtuous outcome), or the final gunfight where the visuals, score, and sound design all cascade into each other to form one of the most memorable scenes of the year, these moments don’t work because of the characters that were built, but instead satisfy due to an understanding of film techniques. The screenplay itself is solid, but never amounts to a whole as strong as the individual parts.

True History of the Kelly Gang

This holds True History of the Kelly Gang back, turns it into a very well-made film that never really justifies the time it spends building upon Ned Kelly’s character. The story could have opened with Kelly as a man, and audiences would likely not feel much different about his plight. This often is the case with Kurzel’s films, however; they know where they want to go, but don’t rarely justify the time they take to get there. Instead, beautiful visuals and a score that moves between raucous and dissonant distract from an otherwise standard telling of a man brought into a violent life, and his fight to be himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Pleads for Love and Laughter Amidst Hatred

‘Jojo Rabbit’ brings Waititi’s signature humor to a coming-of-age movie about growing up as a youth in Nazi Germany.

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Jojo Rabbit

After directing Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi probably got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in Hollywood. Already signed on to do Thor: Love and Thunder, the New Zealand director decided to do something almost no other director would probably consider: making a comedy about Hitler. That would be the reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. It’s all done with that signature Waititi charm that makes the film a joyous mix of entertaining dialogue and lovable characters.

The hardest thing to get past in Jojo Rabbit is its initial premise. Set during World War II, just as Germany is on the cusp of defeat, the film follows ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he begins his training to be a part of Hitler’s army. After he is sent home from a Nazi bootcamp, he discovers a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house, and is forced to help hide her or risk his mother (Scarlett Johansson) being murdered by the Gestapo. His blind fanaticism to Hitler and his ideals puts Jojo in a precarious situation that is only further made tense by the presence of his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (played with Chaplin-esque exuberance by Waititi).

Jojo Rabbit

It would be easy to write off Jojo Rabbit as a farce if based on its initial set up. Easily reminiscent of the director’s first coming-of-age film, Boy, there’s a level of quirk that will likely aggravate audiences unwilling to give the premise the time of day. Hitler is not played off as menacing — he’s played off as a joke. The entire Nazi regiment is filled with cartoonishly evil devotees to Hitler, as well as naive children that join the army as last-ditch draftees. It’s easy to see these portrayals as mere jokes, but the screenplay doesn’t ever feel like it’s one hundred percent about showing Nazis as bad; instead, it goes even broader to show that hate itself is bad and worthless, by using Nazi Germany and Hitler as target practice.

Setting Jojo up as the main character, the film breaks down his staunch hatred of the Jewish race by forcing him to confront his beliefs and what they mean to the world around him. How his fanaticism affects his mother, or how it has suddenly forced him out of being a child, all contributes to Jojo as a character being torn down inch-by-inch by the love surrounding him. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, is worn out by the war and simply wants it to end, while Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf seems at odds with the ideals of the Hitler regime, and now acts as a high-ranking officer with a very lazy devotion to the fuhrer. 

Klezendorf and Rosie are characters that always exist within Waititi’s films. Klezendorf substitutes as a father-like figure to Jojo, as his own father continues to fight the war in Italy. He tries to provide guidance and love to the child while Rosie struggles to deal with Jojo’s blind devotion to Hitler — who also acts as a father-figure to the young boy. Jojo Rabbit explores how propaganda and hateful rhetoric can shape the youth into hateful people without the years spent open to the world around them. It’s an ambitious extension upon Waititi’s prior coming-of-age tales, which tend to show how negligence can affect a child’s upbringing.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit is also one of the funniest movies of the year — not because it makes fun of Hitler and Nazi Germany (though those jokes are also gold), but because it takes aim at every form of hatred. Waititi only has sympathy for those who have the potential to love, and so he doesn’t just make everyone the subject of ridicule, but focuses on those characters who bring it on themselves. A dedicated SS officer will be ridiculed to the high heavens because he just wants to capture and kill traitors and the Jewish people; it’s the price paid for being a jerk, and Waititi simply has no time to defend every character’s actions.

Jojo Rabbit isn’t here to simply say that a time period and a certain person was bad. Waititi is making a claim that many have already made: there is too much hate in this world, so why not be a little nicer? Opening with a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” there’s a constant nagging at the oppressors of the film to be a little nicer and maybe open up to another point of view. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s his previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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‘Nefarious’ Shows Passion For The Home Invasion Genre

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From creative horror fiend Richard Rowntree comes his newest venture, a home invasion film titled Nefarious. The Dogged director and his crew have found an angle to take on the genre to make it feel fresh and lively.

Nefarious follows a few different people in the same small town, from four roommates in trouble with a considerable debt to the wrong people, to a special needs man named Clive who has won a considerable sum of money in the lottery. The film follows multiple sides of the story as they develop, with the violent and ill-tempered Darren at the helm of the intruders. With desperation leading him and his thugs to the house of Clive and his brother, Marcus, these intruders find they’ve gotten into something so much bigger than they thought.

Nefarious kicks off with the first of many interrogation room asides that allude to the events of the film. Soon the plot gets rolling, and the story begins to be pieced together. These interrogation room scenes place characters against a pitch-black backdrop, giving off a bit of a surrealist and dreamlike vibe, and some of the most impressive shots — particularly a scene with the two detectives looking through a two-way mirror — come from this setting. The intro runs a bit long, but continues the surrealist lean, with shaky visuals ranging from violent to erotic to strange shots of different individuals.

Nefarious - Interrogation
Lou being interrogated in the dark expanse.

Whilst Nefarious is a low budget horror experience, it makes use of what it has very well. The cinematography is fantastic, with varied camera angles and creative framing, along with an attention to colour and lighting. There’s a marked step up in the lighting department from Richard Rowntree’s previous offering; Dogged did use what they had well, but with Nefarious it feels like there’s more mastery over it.

On the technical side, everything comes together nicely, not ever feeling cheap or like it’s cutting corners. In fact, the gore and action — which doesn’t really rear its head until the denouement — is quite effectively done. The one exception is a slightly stilted jab with a crowbar to end a character’s life, but it doesn’t hinder the scene at all. The sets are also incredibly well put together, feeling realistic (perhaps due to filming in real houses and locations), and one particular secret room is all the right kinds of terrifying and disturbing.

Meanwhile, the music doesn’t particularly standout on its own, but the distorted bassy beat backdropping a few scenes fits incredibly well with the tone. There’s also an off-kilter element to the soundtrack that helps keep the viewer on edge.

Nefarious - Fridge
Gross and off-putting, just how you want your frozen viscera.

The acting isn’t stellar across the board, but for the most part it’s quite impressive, with performances from Gregory A. Smith as Clive, Toby Wynn-Davies as Marcus, and Buck Braithwaite as Darren shining. Nadia Lamin also puts in a solid performance as the conflicted Lou, and there’s even a cameo from the director himself as the taxi driver.

By the time the denouement is reached, Nefarious reveals a twist more complex than one would first think. Whilst it’s foreshadowed thoroughly enough to see coming, the weight and scope still come as a surprise, and the exposed extra layers of secrecy keep us on our toes. This finale is built to fantastically, culminating in a whirlwind of brutal and sadistic action, but it does get a bit muddied by those multiple twists overlapping each other, which can make it a bit less impactful. Regardless, the great imagery, execution, and pacing through the final confrontation creates a solid finishing point for Nefarious.

Nefarious defies its budget and shows us a refreshing approach to the home invasion genre, whilst allowing itself to grow outside of it as well. There are a few hitches here and there, but nothing that takes away from an otherwise excellent and thrilling ride. The ending alone is worth the watch, though the buildup is captivating as well. Now with two full-length competent horror films under his belt, I’m looking forward to seeing what angle of the genre Richard Rowntree explores next.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is a Festival Standout

Noah Baumbach’s newest drama is a searing portrait of a marriage dissolving, and his best film to date.

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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