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TIFF, Day 5: Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding

Buyers at TIFF beware! A genuine crowd pleaser is still up for grabs! This morning’s screening of Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding drew raves from the full house at the Visa Screening Room. The film marks a repeat triumph for director Bruce Beresford, whose last film, Mao’s Last Dancer, took the runner-up spot for the Audience Award at TIFF 2009.

The top draw of the film is a winning return from Hollywood icon Jane Fonda. Despite a considerable decline in the frequency of the actress’s onscreen output, one leaves Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding with the impression that Fonda has been continually active throughout the years. The actress simply does not miss a beat in her hilariously groovy performance as Grace, a legendary hippie of Woodstock, New York. (Keep an eye on Fonda when it comes time to count the ballots for Best Actress in a Comedy at the Golden Globes.) Grace is a fun character who draws heavily upon Fonda’s star persona – the protest scenes seem an especially nostalgic nod at “Hanoi Jane” – as well as the breezy energy of her exercise tapes.

The collapsing of Fonda’s persona within the performance is appreciable, for Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding offers a multi-generational narrative akin to this summer’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. The middle generation of Grace’s family is Diana, played by a well-cast Catherine Keener. Diana is an uptight lawyer from New York City, and she has estranged herself from Grace during the past twenty years; however, Diana decides to take a trip to Woodstock as a brief respite from her impending divorce from Mark (Kyle MacLachlan). Diana brings along her two kids, neither of whom have ever met their grandmother. Filling the roles of the third generation are Nat Wolff as Jake, the exemplary teen filmmaker who sees life through a viewfinder, and Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Elizabeth Olsen as Zoe, a headstrong young woman who has memorized one first-year university class too many. Wolff is kooky fun, while Olsen gives another strong performance, proving that her feat in Martha Marcy was no fluke.

Diana and the kids soon arrive at Grace’s house, which is a meticulously detailed bohemian paradise of kitschy patterns, plastic beads, and good vibes. Grace’s eccentric, free-loving ways prove to be a much-needed revelation for Diana et al. Each of them embraces the ways of Woodstock and soon finds love and inner harmony through Grace’s guidance. The freewheeling nature of the characters might first resemble contrivance, but if viewers simply relax their shoulders and embrace the good karma of the film, they will surely be rewarded.

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding is warm and rejuvenating: it appeals to a wide audience, yet it doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience, either. The film intertwines larger messages about peace and politics within the various romantic farces that emerge, and Beresford provides some nice symbolism to render the themes accessible – the changes in Diana’s hair, for example. The imagery and the parallel threads add up to a smart, eclectic, and thoroughly enjoyable film. The Artist might have some competition for that audience award!

Up second for the day was a film that displays the perils of festival-going, for films as great as Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding often pose a tough act to follow. Monsieur Lazhar is a good film nevertheless, but not as strong as the first half of the afternoon’s double-bill. Monsieur Lazhar is the latest film by Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, whose previous film, It’s Not Me, I Swear! (C’est pas moi, je le jure!), is one of my favourite Canadian films produced in recent years. Monsieur Lazhar is a welcome follow-up.

Monsieur Lazhar is an adaptation of the one-man stage play by Evelyne de la Chenelière, and Falardeau does an impressive job expanding the drama beyond the lone title character. Monsieur Lazhar, played by Monhamed Fellag, is an Algerian refugee who lands a job at a Montreal elementary school when one of the teachers tragically hangs herself in her classroom. Her death is a genuine shock to the students, especially young Simon (Émilien Neron), who discovered her body during recess. Monsier Lazhar incorporates the children’s grief into his pedagogy, and he teaches them to understand each other by being kind and conscientious in times of need.

Lazhar himself is dealing with a great loss. An asylum seeker, he lost his wife and children in a firebombing incident stemming from his wife’s political activism. Lazhar’s own situation provides a deeper lesson to the film, as Falardeau explores issues of migration and identity, and the film raises questions of belonging within a ‘melting pot’ society. Monsieur Lazhar is ultimately a sweet film that pleases through the earnestness and conviction of its collaborators.

Just a few minutes after Monsieur Lazhar ended, I moseyed on over to another screen at the AMC to catch a screening of Pariah. Directed by Dee Rees, who makes her fiction-feature debut in this expansion of her award-winning short of the same name, Pariah comes to Toronto after some strong buzz from Sundance (where cinematographer Bradford Young won a well-deserved prize). Adepero Oduye stars as Alike (pronounced A-lee-kay), a Brooklyn teen struggling with her newly realized sexual identity and a turbulent relationship with her overprotective parents. Pariah is a fair, non-judgemental look at sexuality and middle class America, and the film brings out Alike’s coming of age/coming out by drawing upon the universal insecurities and ecstasies of her situation. Rees’ film provides some welcome representation both for and from African Americans, as well as some dynamic roles for her cast. (Moviegoers left dissatisfied by The Help should take a peek.) Oduye makes a strong impression as the young Alike, while Kim Wayans nearly steals the show as Alike’s cranky and conservative mother. Thanks to the fresh, entertaining, and insightful eye with which Rees approaches the material, Pariah heralds a strong new voice in American independent filmmaking

“In the future, society’s weak are killed and used for meat.” That’s the premise of Carré Blanc, the fourth and final film I saw today. This co-production from France/Luxembourg/Russia/Belgium/Switzerland has a strong dystopian atmosphere and offers plenty of incongruous humour. Despite the intriguing premise, though, Carré Blanc provokes little thought and it neglects to chill or terrify. Yawn… bedtime!

Up tomorrow: A lighter day of screenings with That Summer (Un été brûlant) and Kotoko.