TIFF serves as the launchpad for films seeking to attract awards season buzz. From the Best Picture juggernaughts (12 Years a Slave & Gravity) to the noted performances (the Best Actor/Supporting Actor combo winners Matthew McConaughey & Jared Leto from Dallas Buyers Club), TIFF was the place where yours truly first encountered these films, felt the undeniable allure along with a host of others, and rushed out of a theater to spread the good news.
What can happen though is a subtle warping of expectations, a sense that if a film doesn’t wow critical audiences during these key moments, then it is somehow not worthy. The greatest burden borne, in fact, might be that of the opening night premiere. As the first film to screen before general audiences with the glitz and glamour of the stars walking the Red Carpet under the brightest of lights, this film sets the tone. If it stumbles out of the gate, like David Dobbin’s The Judge last year, it drowns rather spectacularly.
Curiously, this year, the opening night premiere spot went to Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition (Fox Searchlight), which makes sense when you consider that Vallée is a festival darling. Demolition marks his third consecutive film to screen during TIFF, following Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, and each of those films used the festival as springboards into the deep waters of the season, buoyed by numerous nominations (and of course, key wins). On the surface, Demolition would appear to be on the same track, featuring a lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal who has not so quietly amassed a reputation as an actor to watch since earning an Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain. It’s hard to believe that was ten years ago, but since then Gyllenhaal has put together a string of roles in films like Zodiac, Rendition, Source Code, End of Watch, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler that forced us to take note, even if the films failed to garner either box office acclaim or the kind of critical glory that tends to define this make or break scenario I’m laying out here.
The film tracks the downward spiral of Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal), a husband who loses his wife in a car accident and acts out in an attempt to find and accept his grief, while in search of a new path for himself in the aftermath. In lesser hands, this could have been a maudlin affair, rife with sentimentality and romantic miscues, but Vallée and Gyllenhaal aim for the kind of honesty that the character expresses in his now-raw and open existence. I feel in love, wishing I could be as true as this film.
The team at Fox Searchlight read the tea leaves and decided that they wanted to skirt the crushing expectations usually associated with opening night. They accepted the honor, even though Demolition will not open in theaters until April of 2016, completely leapfrogging the 2015 awards season, leading some to wonder. This creates a buzz of its own, the kind that attracts sharks; this is fresh blood in the water.
What I found, yesterday morning, during the first Press & Industry screening, was yet another Vallée gem. In his two previous “hits,” the director struck a delicate balance of working with noted performers (Reese Witherspoon held the center in Wild), while remaining true to the essence of the dramatic material, expertly weaving a spell that drew us into the intimate interior spaces of the story and the lives of the characters. I backtracked into Vallée’s filmography a bit after his breakout with Dallas Buyers Club and discovered Café de Flore (2011), a magical mystery tour into the hearts and souls of two sets of characters in parallel stories – a love story between a man and a woman and the unbreakable bond between a mother and her son. The film earned Vallée major studio attention, but offered telling proof that he found ways to hold onto his sensibilities, while working on a grander scale.
Demolition, in some ways, is closest in spirit to Café de Flore, which likely frightened Fox Searchlight, leading to the retreat from the awards season. It is a decision like this that should make us all reconsider what truly matters. I would like to believe that awards season is the time of the year when studios & distributors give us their best work, as if to say, “Here, check this out. Enjoy.” And the honors may or may not come, but we will know and appreciate all of the goodness we have experienced. A film like Demolition is a reward for us, a treasure that I hope won’t get lost when it screens in April, which has now become the starting point of an entirely different season (now bypassing spring to head straight into the blockbusters of summer).
Don’t you forget about Demolition. I will do my best to remind you when the time comes, although I wish we could dismantle these crazy expectations. (tt stern-enzi)