As I’ve said over the years during my Toronto International Film Festival daily breakdowns, I tend to stumble upon themes in my curated screening experiences. Sometimes that means spotlighting an actor or filmmaker with multiple titles playing the festival. But as I find myself toggling between regular coverage of films and a deeper dive as an artistic director seeking to discover titles to program throughout the year (while also investing more time in networking with a host of industry professional and art-adjacent community partners), it seems that themes or throughlines are even more necessary to focus my efforts.
So, based on a much smaller sampling than usual at this point, notions of community and family help me to make sense of what I’ve seen thus far.
An international critic I chatted in line while we were both picking up our press badges approached the row I was seated in for my first TIFF screening yesterday (Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness) and shuffled into a seat. She then made her way back to share an observation most of us (folks lucky enough to attend these Press & Industry screenings) would likely agree with. The first crowded P&I event usually sets the tone for the rest of our festival experiences. These critical darlings create high expectations. Personally, I find that I measure every other film I see against that first title.
And so it will be with Triangle of Sadness, which earned Östlund the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. When it comes to family drama Östlund’s Force Majeure from 2014 was one of the most powerfully unforgettable films I’ve seen in the last 10-15 years. He placed a seemingly happy family on a ski vacation under the microscope as the threat of an avalanche forced the husband and wife to re-evaluate what safety within the family dynamic really means.
With Triangle of Sadness, family disruption is not the heart of the matter. There’s a broadening of concerns here. It starts with Carl (Harris Dickinson), an emerging male model and his relationship with Yaya (Charlbi Dean), a more established and successful model as they navigate the trials and tribulations of switched gender roles – modeling is apparently one of the few positions where women make far more than men. But just when we think Östlund is swimming in Force Majeure’s murky waters, the narrative expertly upends our expectations in darkly comic ways.
Triangle of Sadness wants to reshape our conception of community and society. What defines how we treat one another based on perceived worth and social order? Always one for sly wit, Östlund subverts himself with broad hijinks involving bodily fluids that cross over, in the most extreme moments, from humor to something close to horror, and at that point we’re only partway through the proceedings.
I know full-well that this brief breakdown is a tantalizing teaser. I can’t wait until the film’s eventual release to wade into its gross waters more thoroughly, but I will say what’s going on here feels like the surreal marriage of M. Night Shyamalan and Jordan Peele if they conceived of a baby film idea and shot it on a Marxist soundstage with Woody Harrelson as the production’s nanny.
The families we sometimes create for ourselves take center stage in South Korean writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda’s Broker featuring Parasite’s Song Kang-ho as the de facto leader of an illegal baby trafficking scheme. Within the world of Broker, women who have babies they don’t want to keep can anonymously drop them off at boxes (think library depository boxes/chutes). From there, the children get transferred to orphanages where they may be eligible for adoption. If the child is left with a note stating that the mother will come back, the child ends up in a state of limbo that can last until they reach adulthood.
Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and his partner-in-crime Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang) are well-intentioned, which becomes apparent when So-young (Ji-eun Lee), the most recent woman who left her baby at one of the boxes returns and seeks to claim a cut of the sale of her baby. As the trio seeks to secure a deal and maintain their secret histories, they are pursued by a surly police officer (Bae Doona) with her own issues.
Broker was another Cannes award-winner (Song Kang-ho for Best Actor, Koreeda earned the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury) and it feels like a spiritual cousin to Koreeda’s 2018 film Shoplifters as well as Parasite. Less plot-driven, Broker sets up a topical social drama that averts its gaze from the polemic to something far more intimate and human. It’s a world I simply didn’t want to want to leave when the house lights came on.
A world away from the idea of Woody Harrelson as a production nanny is writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny. The story of Aisha (Anna Diop), an immigrant from Senegal who takes the job as a nanny for an Upper East Side family to help pay to bring her young son to live with her in New York. This is a nightmarish version of the American Dream, not only for Aisha, but also Amy (Michelle Monaghan), the working mother of the family whose grip on her career and her relationships with her husband (Morgan Spector) and daughter Rose (Rose Decker) is equally precarious.
I should note that Jason Blum (Blumhouse) is a producer of Nanny, so it’s no surprise that there are strong horror elements woven into the story and its frames, but fortunately Jusu introduces us to African myths and folklore featuring a dark mermaid and the trickster spider Anansi who might be familiar to readers of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods series or the upcoming Anansi Boys. [Orlando Jones’ fiercely cackling and insidiously crafty version of Mr. Nancy in American Gods was everything people have imagined that Tom Hiddleston’s Loki should have been in the MCU.]
This focus on dreams and nightmares in a story rooted in horror might beg for audiences to question their belief in magic, but what Jusu, through the character of Aisha, does is posit that belief doesn’t matter. Magic just exists; it is up to us to determine how we use it or accept the power contained in it.
Which makes magic a bit like community and family…