TIFF Diary #4: ‘mother!,’ ‘Lean on Pete,’ ‘Who We Are Now,’ ‘Super Size Me 2’

Darren Aronofsky goes bonkers, Morgan Spurlock goes back to the well, and more in today's Toronto International Film Festival round-up.

Something odd and off-balance is happening right away in Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, in which a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is overwhelmed by the sudden feeling of being a stranger in her own domicile. Quite literally the homemaker, she is rebuilding and repainting the remote, burned-out house she shares with her writer husband (Javier Bardem), and at first it seems as though we’re in Shining territory, a tense marriage with a writer in isolation as mysterious sounds and voices bounce and carry around the house. But then the husband brings home a stranger (Ed Harris), offering him a place to stay (“We don’t know him,” she objects, to which her husband replies cheerfully, “He’s a doctor!”); his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives shortly thereafter, and she keeps trying to engage our heroine in wildly, inappropriately personal “girl talk.” No matter what they do – and I do mean no matter what – her husband won’t let her kick these interlopers out, because, he keeps reminding her, “They have nowhere to go.” But not long after their arrival, she starts seeing and hearing things.

Aronfsky’s longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique chooses a purposefully discombobulating style for mother! — most of its scenes are shot entirely in uncomfortably tight, handheld close-ups, creating the effect of a movie where we’re always over our protagonist’s shoulder. (It’s effective, if eventually monotonous.) This is all done in a kind of muted half-light, even during broad daylight scenes, casting a nightmarish pall over the proceedings.

Then she gets pregnant, and the film begins to operate with not only the look, but the logic of a dream – particularly in matters related to the pliability of time, which passes far more quickly than it should. And then it veers into a giant allegory for religion (no, really), with a long sequence of straight-up onscreen and narrative anarchy, and then it really gets bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s. Calling mother! strange is a grotesque understatement; I honestly don’t know how Aronofsky got something like this financed, shot, and slated for a wide release by a major Hollywood studio (it’s out Friday). It doesn’t all work; long stretches, in fact, don’t play at all. But it’s formally impressive and deeply disturbing, and the mere fact that it exists at all is a testament to either Aronfsky’s salesmanship, Lawrence’s star power, or both. I admire its craft and its audacity, but this is the definitive case of “your mileage may vary.”

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Steve Buscemi’s first line in Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is – hang on I wrote this down: “AW, YOU MOTHERFUCKIN COCKSUCKIN FUCK!” His firm grasp of complex profanity is about the only recognizable element of his wonderful performance here, as an aging cowboy and a bit of a has-been (“I used to have 20 or so. Now I got . . . about six”) who hires 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) and teaching him the ropes, literally. They rustle racing horses for the county fair circuit, and Charley takes a real shine to one of ‘em, Lean on Pete; the horse makes the boy smile, which is helpful, because his home life is falling apart. Pete becomes the thing Charley focuses on, because he has to focus on something.

Lean on Pete is a good old-fashioned boy-and-his-horse story, with Charley and Pete taking off unexpectedly on a road trip of cash-strapped desperation. They wander through a series vignettes, each with the inner life and rich characters of a McMurtry short story, each with their own pleasures and curveballs. (I particularly like the way it first draws on Steve Zahn’s cozy charm, and then turns it inside out.) Haigh’s minimalistic yet vivid screenplay patiently traces Charlie’s step-by-step descent into the company of some truly sketchy characters, yet he perseveres; he may be soften-spoken, but he’s filled with great strength, up to and including the powerful moment when he finally allows himself to feel – and to mourn.

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Accidental themes emerge at film festivals all the time, so the day after Outside In, I found myself at another “ex-con, trying to piece it together” story. Who We Are Now concerns Beth (Julianne Nicholson), just out of prison after a ten-year bit, trying and failing to get back the son she signed over to her sister (Jess Weixler). She’s working with the (free) help of Carl (Jimmy Smits, carrying the weight of the world) who runs a legal aid group; one of the junior members is Jess (Emma Roberts), whose youthful enthusiasm and hopefulness are diminishing, and rapidly.

Writer/director Matthew Newton lets these stories circle each other for a while; his film at first seems merely observational, a collection of dialogues and encounters, but it’s accumulating. Nicholson, in her third TIFF appearance this year, is one of those actors who’s so un-showy that she’s ended up being less of a star than she could be; this role was reportedly written just for her, and she nails it. The entire cast is solid, in fact, but the other stand-out is Zachary Quinto as Beth’s maybe-boyfriend – he’s seriously funny, gruffly charming, and working 180 degrees from anything else he’s done.

Some of the big monologues are a touch theatrical, but these actors really move the merchandise, so that doesn’t much matter. Richly written and sensitively acted, Who We Are Now is one of the low-key best movies of the festival.

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It’s been 13 years since Super Size Me introduced the American public to Morgan Spurlock, the mustachioed comic documentary filmmaker who has spent the years since working steadily, but never again recapturing the public’s imagination. (Remember his bin Laden movie? His movie about Comic-Con? You’re not alone.) So it’s probably not surprising that he’s returned to his greatest success with Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!, which begins with a simple idea: “I wanna open my own fast food restaurant.” He first takes the idea to celebrity chefs and entrepreneurs – the kind of names he couldn’t get all those years ago – and then to trend experts, “brand strategy consultants,” “innovation kitchens,” and advertising agencies. (Give him this much: He’s not just repeating Super Size Me, but his Greatest Movie Ever Sold too.)

But he does it, opening a chicken sandwich joint in an old Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio (“The test market capital of the world”). He buys and raises (or, y’know, has a guy raise) his chickens, works out marketing strategies, and then designs and staffs up for his stunt restaurant, poking fun at corporate norms – a funny enough sequence, though it’s kind of like watching an average episode of Nathan For You.

More compelling are the strands he pursues on the way there. He spends a fair amount of time on “the health halo” (also “greenwashing” or “healthwashing”), corporate speak for the ways in which certain buzzwords and ingredients create the perception of healthiness, but not actual healthiness. He figures out how easy it is to game the USDA and its designations, like “free-range,” “all-natural,” and “no added hormones.” And he takes a close look at the way our views are influenced by how things are worded, packaged, and presented. But unless you’re particularly partial to Spurlock’s fluffy style of cutesy, self-satisfied juxtaposition, music cues, narration, animation, man-on-the-street interviews, and on-screen text, there’s not much of value in Super Size Me 2 that you couldn’t just pick up from a good article.