TIFF 2022: A Queer and Trans Festival Recap

When I was a kid, the Toronto International Film Festival was the beginning of movie season. Of the major festivals, TIFF was the one that often showed the artier films that would make it to my suburb over the next few months. I’d read coverage, take notes, and count down the days until I’d get to see the movies that sounded best. Well, it was such a joy to finally make it to the festival myself especially in a year with so much great cinema — so much great queer cinema.

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve watched forty features and the first two episodes of a TV show. Yes, forty. While I was lucky enough to write full reviews for a handful of titles, there was a lot of other work I wanted to cover. Consider this list a reference, a collection of short reviews for the rest of the year’s buzzed about films and films that should be buzzed about. A lot of these films are queer, but not all of them. I think there’s value to getting a queer voice, a trans voice, on work that isn’t directly about us. I’m just one such voice, but I sure enjoyed watching all these films and I hope you enjoy reading about them!

Alam (dir. Firas Khoury)

Toward the beginning of Firas Khoury’s fantastic debut Alam, there’s a shot of the nape of a girl’s sweaty neck. We’re in the perspective of horny teenage boy Tamer (Mahmood Bakri), and he’s convinced he’s just just fallen in love. Because of this neck — and Maysaa (Jaboor Kawn), the owner of said neck — Tamer will risk his own. As a Palestinian teenager, Tamer’s life was always political — his involvement in these politics just wasn’t direct. The trouble he was getting in was more of the rebellious teen artist variety. But Maysaa is political, and so Tamer becomes political. This film is so effective because it grounds its story of rebellion in its characters’ youth. Some are involved out of righteous anger, some are involved for drug money, and, yes, some are involved for a pretty girl.

It’s funny and charming like a teen hangout movie and then suddenly dark and painful as the reality of living in occupied Palestine interrupts the innocence of youth. Ultimately, its message is against all nationalism — but it does this while being honest about Palestine’s history and present. This is a portrait of life in an apartheid state, it’s a portrait of a group of teenagers who just want to listen to music and get laid.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (dir. Laura Poitras)

Full review.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (dir. Aitch Alberto)

This is a YA movie based on a YA book. But it says a lot about the craft on display that it brought to mind Desert Hearts more than it did Love, Simon. The script — with its narration and moments of melodrama — feels geared toward a younger audience, and yet it never talks down to them. Trans woman writer/director Aitch Alberto embraces the complexities of the story about two Mexican American teenagers in the 80s. She respects her young characters — and her young audience — enough not to avoid darkness, not to avoid layers. The result is a beautiful film that skates around clichés and embraces only the truest platitudes. This may be a polished queer coming-of-age movie, but it’s polished in a way that feels artful and pointed. First and foremost a work of queer expression, this is the kind of YA cinema kids deserve.

Max Pelayo as Aristotle and Reese Gonzales as Dante sit next to each other at a yellow bus stop with mountains and the sky behind them.

Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Biosphere (dir. Mel Eslyn)

There will be trans people who watch this movie and love it. There will be trans people who watch this movie and hate it. My challenge to you is to accept that that’s okay. For so long, trans people were treated terribly in the industry and on-screen — often we still are — but the solution cannot be moving away from interesting, challenging work about gender. This science fiction two-hander is better enjoyed with no prior knowledge, and yet the one thing to know is it was produced by trans woman, filmmaker, and all around cool person Zackary Drucker. You don’t have to like the movie, but you should trust its perspective. Writer/director Mel Eslyn has created a funny and complicated film sure to provoke thought and discussion. She’s also drawn out a pair of really great performances from Sterling K. Brown and co-writer Mark Duplass. There were moments I doubted where this one was going — I’m so glad I stayed along for the ride.

Bros (dir. Nicholas Stoller)

I have a full review coming out next week, but for now I’ll say this movie is far more conventional than it is revolutionary. And that’s fine?? It’s hilarious and fun, and I don’t need it to be anything else.

Carmen (dir. Benjamin Millepied)

If, like me, you were obsessed with Black Swan in 2010, then Benjamin Millepied is a name you already know. He’s the French choreographer who trained Natalie Portman for the movie and then married her. He’s one of the most famous living dancers and choreographers in the world, and the thought of his directorial debut was thrilling to me personally. And so it’s too bad that his new version of Carmen didn’t trust in its dancing and its Nicholas Britell score. Instead, this overlong film has a script not even Melissa Barrera and Rossy de Palma can save. It’s not quite as atrocious as some in the “woman falls in love with her oppressor” canon, but it’s still cringey. Not to mention about a half hour too long. The opera Carmen has been masterfully reinvented on-screen at least twice — Joseph Gaï Ramaka’s Karmen Gei and Carlos Saura’s Carmen. It’s also found noteworthy if imperfect versions in Jean-Luc Godard’s Prenom: Carmen and Carmen Jones starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. This falls short of them all.

Casa Susanna (dir. Sébastien Lifshitz)

Sébastien Lifshitz (cis, gay) has made a career out of telling trans stories that are better than most. His 2004 narrative film Wild Side stood out for its sensitivity and for casting an actual trans actor. But that was 2004. Times, thankfully, have changed — Lifshitz’s work hasn’t. His last documentary, Little Girl, was made for a cis audience, but its intimate story still managed to resonate. This film is less successful. By working with a real, under-explored history, Lifshitz’s gaze becomes more frustrating. There’s so much great archival work — credit to Jenni Olsen who served as archival producer — the film that could have been is constantly bumping up against the film itself. Lifshitz gives too much screen time to cis relatives, fails to lead his trans subjects toward anything more than broad strokes, and ends up with a film that over-explains basics of transness more than it delivers this history to its own community. It’s not that this is a bad film. It’s just frustrating to have the opportunity to tell this story and to leave so much unexplored.

Causeway (dir. Lila Neugebauer)

I’m going to save detailed thoughts for a full review when this comes out in early November. But for now, I’ll share that yes Jennifer Lawrence’s character is a lesbian, yes it’s her best performance since Winter’s Bone, and yes Brian Tyree Henry once again reminds us that he’s just about the best actor working right now. Beyond that, I struggled with the film and the way it frames the war in Afghanistan as a righteous cause. It’s not pro-military in a totally jingoistic way, but even its subtle approach grated. Support for the US military and all of our country’s evil wars is so ingrained, I genuinely think everyone involved in this movie thought they were being neutral. It doesn’t end up feeling neutral.

Dry Ground Burning (dir. Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós)

At once both a documentary about the criminal resistance in Bolsonaro’s Brazil and a dystopic epic about a queer women oil gang, Dry Ground Burning is as mesmerizing as it is indefinable. Real-life sisters Chitarra and Léa play versions of themselves as they grapple with their limited options and the dangers of turning to crime. Some moments feel like a cinema verité portrait of the two women reconnecting after Léa’s six years in prison, other moments feel straight out of an action movie. While hardship is ever-present, the two women still find comfort in family, biological and chosen, as well some fun nights of queer partying. If you’re a fan of Lizzie Borden’s 1983 masterpiece Born in Flames, you’ll love this too. This is a film with a form as radical as the women at its center.

Close up of Chitarra playing herself. Her face is lit with orange light as she looks off camera.

Chitarra in Dry Ground Burning

The End of Sex (dir. Sean Garrity)

While this might be worth watching for middle-aged straight couples who have run out Everybody Loves Raymond reruns, there’s next to nothing of value here for queer audiences. Yes, there is technically a sex scene between Emily Hampshire and Melanie Scrofano, but the film’s writer Jonas Chernick is there too, acting out a straight man’s cucking fantasy. This feels less like a movie that should be premiering at TIFF and more like some guy in your acting class inherited enough money to make a poorly shot vanity project. I could point out the casual ways this movie is phobic to just about every letter of LGBTQ, but, honestly, it’s more offensive to good taste than the queer community. The film equivalent of swiping through straight couples on lesbian Tinder.

The Eternal Daughter (dir. Joanna Hogg)

Joanna Hogg’s new collaboration with Tilda Swinton is a gothic horror movie of living discomforts. The ghosts are emotional, the terror made up of real-life annoyances: a sad dog’s whine, an open window’s bang, a rude concierge’s tone. The wind. Unrelenting wind. Swinton plays both a middle-aged filmmaker and her mother as the two of them spend a week at an old hotel from the mother’s past. It feels like nobody is there except these two women, the mother’s dog, the rude concierge (Carly-Sophia Davies), and the friendly groundskeeper (Joseph Mydell), and there is somehow a claustrophobia in the expanse of empty space. This is not a pleasant film to watch nor is it meant to be. Its themes of grief and the impossible desire of pleasing your parents are as painful as they are universal. The reserved British emotions of it all only add to the uncomfortable horror. And yet, by the end, these difficulties felt worth it to experience a genre story unlike any other.

The Fabelmans (dir. Steven Spielberg)

When Steven Spielberg isn’t distracted by self-mythologizing, his cinematic autobiography is a moving story about a kid who becomes the best parts of each of his complicated parents. There are moments both quiet and loud between his stand-in Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), his parents (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano), and his parents’ friend (Seth Rogen) that are Spielberg at his sentimental best. He is undoubtedly a master of the craft — unfortunately, he’s less masterful when it comes to story. The film begins when Sammy goes to see his first movie and ends with his first job in Hollywood. By the end of this two-and-a-half-hour journey, I wished Spielberg had chosen one section of his upbringing to focus on. When it’s good, it’s very good, but often it’s scattered and hollow. It doesn’t help that he and co-writer Tony Kushner seem incapable of writing his eccentric and troubled mother, nor his Christian high school girlfriend (Chloe East). Michelle Williams does the best she can, but she often ends up feeling less like a person and more like a Manic Pixie Dream Mom. I wish every scene could be as powerful and unique as the one with Judd Hirsch playing his great uncle. But Spielberg just doesn’t seem to understand the most interesting aspects of his own story — nor how to structure that story.

The film shows that Spielberg got his first Hollywood job through tenacity. The truth is he got it through his dad’s connections. His dad also financed his first feature. Of course, these aren’t the things anyone in Hollywood talks about. But it’s a shame to leave these details out when a central conflict is whether or not his dad will support the artistic sensibility he inherited from his mother. Steven Spielberg has spent the last four decades letting his worst artistic tendencies get in the way of his singular talent — it’s fitting this tribute to himself would do the same.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (dir. Rian Johnson)

Full review.

Hawa (Maïmouna Doucouré)

Maïmouna Doucouré has followed up her unfairly controversial debut with the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Her new film follows Hawa, a French girl living in Paris with her dying Cameroonian grandma. Hawa knows that she’ll be adopted after her grandma’s death, and she decides the only person worthy enough to fill this role is Michelle Obama. What follows is a real-world adventure film with Hawa and her persistence scootering around trying to achieve her impossible dream. Her quest causes her to cross paths with singer Yseult and astronaut Thomas Pasquet, as well as regular people from her own neighborhood. The section with Yseult is definitely the standout, but the whole film is a joyful watch. It manages to be fun and sentimental while also questioning why we value who we value in our cultures. Maybe Michelle Obama isn’t actually worthy of Hawa’s grandmother. Even if she’s on TV.

High School [ep. 101 and 102] (dir. Clea DuVall)

While this TV adaptation of Tegan and Sara’s High School will certainly hold more pleasures for fans of the duo, the reason it works is because it’s just a good teen drama. Even if you never cry-screamed your way through So Jealous or blasted “Burn Your Life Down” while making poor choices, you will likely still be charmed by this tale of queer twins in Calgary fighting with each other and their world. The series feels more like a low-key queer indie than a splashy music icon origin story, and it’s really working for me so far. I’m not quite sold yet on the decision to go into their mom’s perspective as well, but I’m interested to see how that goes as the show develops. I was really excited for this and I’m glad it didn’t disappoint!

Railey and Seazynn Gilliland as Tegan and Sara Quinn lie against perpendicular ends of the same school building.

Railey and Seazynn Gilliland in High School

How to Blow Up a Pipeline (dir. Daniel Goldhaber)

Full review.

I Like Movies (dir. Chandler Levack)

I was extremely skeptical going into this coming-of-age movie about a nerdy male teen obsessed with movies. But it helps if you know that the movie wasn’t made by a nerdy male adult obsessed with movies and was actually written and directed by a queer woman (who is still nerdy and loves movies). While Chandler Levack’s debut feature does reference, by my count, six Stanley Kubrick films, it doesn’t rely solely on its 2002 nostalgia and cinephile allusions. Instead, it’s a poignant movie about the danger of getting obsessed with your own misfortunate. It’s not just a tribute to movies, but a tribute to what the best movies can accomplish — encouraging us to look out as much as we look in.

The Inspection (dir. Elegance Bratton)

Elegance Bratton’s film is based on his experience as a gay Black man who joined the marines to escape homelessness. I cannot pretend to understand Bratton’s experiences, but I can criticize the conclusion he’s drawn from those experiences. While the beginning of his well-made, well-acted film seems aware that the military preys on young people with limited choices, he stops short at critiquing the military itself. He shows boot camp to be brutal, and he shows the homophobia and anti-Muslim racism that existed in 2005. But the ultimate goal of turning these young people into patriotic killing machines is framed as noble. The methods are questioned; the missions are not. Like Causeway, this attempt at neutrality results in a film that reinforces our system. There is a difference between finding your chosen family in the marines and making a film that suggests finding your chosen family in the marines is anything but fucked up.

The character based on Bratton is ultimately assigned to the media division, a camera his primary tool of service rather than a gun. The military understands the power of cinema. When will Hollywood? Or maybe I’m being too generous. Maybe they already do.

Joyland (dir. Saim Sadiq)

This is not a great trans film — but it is a great film with a trans lead. Saim Sadiq’s debut feature Joyland is more concerned with its queer male protagonist acting out his repressed desires through a trans woman than the trans woman herself. Usually this would bother me, but this movie is too good — and too respectful of that trans character — for me to care. There is room for all our stories, and considering this is only the second Pakistani feature I’ve ever seen, there is plenty new about this tale. And after all, most of us have had the experience of fucking someone who seems to have more interest in being us, or, at least, being as freely themself as they perceive us to be. Ultimately, that’s what this film is about: freedom. Freedom from our families, freedom from expectations.

If there was a canon of chaser cinema, this would be its masterpiece, but I’ll take a specific, delicate film about a “chaser” and his wife and family over what we usually get: poorly written trans media made by a chaser. It helps that Alina Khan gives an incredible performance as Biba, the trans character. It also helps that — unlike, say, Euphoria — the movie is very explicit about Biba’s womanhood and the man’s error in viewing her as a queer experiment. He may be queer, but Biba is a woman, and his interest in her is not what makes him queer. This is a beautiful, painful film about sexuality and gender, and, for once, the trans woman isn’t the recipient of that pain.

Ali Junejo as Haider rides on the back of a moped driven by Alina Khan as Biba.

Ali Junejo and Alina Khan in Joyland

Moving On (dir. Paul Weitz)

Like his previous collaboration with Lily Tomlin, Paul Weitz’s new film has greater ambitions than showcasing her singular talents. If, ultimately, Tomlin still ends up its greatest success — along with fellow legend Jane Fonda — that’s because there’s just so much talent to show. This traumatic farce explores the decades long effects of sexual assault and homophobia. It’s also a delightful good time. For the first hour, it balances its tones and its plots with a deft touch. It may drag a bit in its final act — with one scene in particular feeling misguided and far less progressive than the rest — but as a whole it’s a lovely, quietly ambitious movie. As long as Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda are still working, I hope they work together. And I hope they keep getting material this rich, nuanced, and just plain hilarious.

My Policeman (dir. Michael Grandage)

For a movie that feels like an Oscar nominee from the early 2000s, this deserves credit for being explicitly anti-police. It also deserves credit for having multiple gay sex scenes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deserve credit for much else. It’s a perfectly fine movie, but it’s just so dull. Maybe it will appeal to liberal straight people, Harry Styles stans, and some cis white gay men, but I can’t see it doing much for anyone else. Out of the three main characters, I’m most interested in the gay art lover who has so much self-hatred he’d fall for a closeted cop. The problem is the film is more interested in the closeted cop and his long-suffering wife. Emma Corrin and Gina McKee are both standouts as the younger and older versions of that wife, but these performances aren’t enough. If you want an old-fashioned gay weepy with slightly more sex, you’re in luck. If you want queer cinema doing anything new, this isn’t it.

On the Come Up (dir. Sanaa Lathan)

Sanaa Lathan has spent the past 20 years not getting the scripts she deserves. During the late 90s and early 00s, she established herself as a uniquely special talent, and the best Hollywood had to offer her was Alien vs. Predator. That’s why I was so excited to see she was taking matters into her own hands and directing herself. The good news is that her talents as an actor extend to her talents as a director. The bad news is once again she has a script not worthy of those skills. It’s not that On the Come Up is bad — it’s very well-acted, very well-directed, and has moments that hint at a better film — but whenever it won me over, it lost me again by turning to plot clichés and forced dialogue. The hands of white execs are felt in the film’s contradictions. It wants to be political, but those politics get muddled in a way that hurts its message and its story. The movie is about an artist learning to not compromise herself for mainstream success — I wish the film had been allowed to take its own advice.

One Fine Morning (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)

Only a year after her incredible English language debut, Bergman Island, French auteur Mia Hansen-Løve is back in France. And One Fine Morning is almost comically French. It takes place in Paris, it stars Léa Seydoux, it centers around an affair. But it’s also about translation, language, death, and watching your parents age. This isn’t one of Hansen-Løve’s very best films — its two parts fight against each other as much as they complement — but she’s such an exceptional filmmaker, it’s hard to not enjoy living in the world she creates. In fact, my biggest complaint is that it ends so abruptly. This is a two-hour film, and I wish it were three. There are worse things than leaving a film wanting more.

Other People’s Children (dir. Rebecca Zlotowski)

Other People’s Children is a deceptively simple film. If it wasn’t for the nearly bombastic music choices and use of iris dissolves, one might mistake it for a basic French drama and not the work of underrated visionary Rebecca Zlotowski. And yet, as I left the theatre, the weight of the film caught up with me. The expansiveness of family, the casual disappointments of life — it all hit me, and my hard Capricorn heart actually started to cry. There’s a nuance to the way Zlotowski creates drama that may prove easy to dismiss. This is not a film to dismiss.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty (dir. Ashley McKenzie)

I will always admire a film unlike anything else I’ve seen — especially from a nonbinary filmmaker — but this stylistically bold story just didn’t work for me. Writer/director Ashley McKenzie based the film on a neurodivergent actor she befriended as well as Ziyin Zheng, one of the film’s co-leads. Sometimes filmmakers succeed at synthesizing the experiences of others, but here I felt the degree of distance. There’s a sense that they have collected the details from these individuals that they find interesting rather than really grounding the film in the people’s lived specificities. I wonder how different this film might feel if the actor it was based on was actually on-screen.

The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile (dir. Kathlyn Horan)

I have to admit that I didn’t know about Tanya Tucker before this film — but, as a lesbian, I knew Brandi Carlile. This is less a documentary about legendary country singer Tucker and more about Carlile’s relationship to her. At least, that’s what the movie is like when it’s at its best. The attempts to be a more conventional music doc that gets into Tucker’s life and history do not work quite as well. But it’s wonderful when it’s about the complicated experience of meeting your heroes, working with your heroes, and believing in your heroes more than they believe in themselves. For fans of Tucker, fans of Carlile, and fans of country music, I’m sure there’s a lot here to enjoy. It also has plenty of pleasures for anyone who loves art and makes art, who understands how often this industry breaks people down and how often people break themselves. And, more importantly, that if the right people believe in you, you can always be built back up.

Tanya Tucker with pink hair hugs Brandi Carlile who stands behind her.

Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile in The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile

Rosie (dir. Gail Maurice)

This French Canadian film about a cis white woman who ends up as the caregiver of her recently deceased adopted Indigenous sister’s child would be bad even if it hadn’t cast two cis men as its trans women leads. I just might’ve been more measured in my critiques. Alas, it did cast two cis men, so I feel no qualms saying their performances are terrible and the film isn’t much better. Its worthwhile critiques of adoption and foster care are muddled by forced plotting and underdeveloped characters. I thought we were at a point where trans actors were at least cast in the poorly written trans parts, but I guess not!

Saint Omer (dir. Alice Diop)

The courtroom drama — like the courtroom itself — is a genre fixated on guilt or innocence. But what does it mean to be guilty and what does it mean to be innocent? Do these words hold depth beyond whether or not someone committed a crime? Alice Diop’s first foray into narrative filmmaking is a courtroom drama with the perpetrator of its crime already confirmed. The question is, why? The question is, what happens if we can’t dismiss this person as a monster? This is a film about innocence; it’s also about motherhood and about anti-African prejudice in France. Like the crime at its center, there is nothing simple about this film. And yet, all its parts work because of a startling central performance from Kayije Kagame, subtle and effective photography from Portrait of a Lady on Fire DP Claire Mathon, and writing from Diop, Marie N’Diaye, and editor Amrita David that feels both poetic and real. The explorations of motherhood and womanhood are very cis-centric, and there are lines and thematic threads that might grate for some. But as a woman without a uterus who has a mom with one, I found the film to be far deeper than these easy dismissals. This is a complicated work of art, and it should be seen by everyone.

So Much Tenderness (dir. Lina Rodriguez)

Lina Rodriguez’s Señoritas is one of my favorite movies of the last ten years. I also really like her follow up This Time Tomorrow. I just love the way she makes cinema! From her first feature onward, she’s had a total confidence in her craft. She trusts images to sit; she trusts actors to play in the space she creates. Her latest film uses these techniques to tell the story of a Colombian journalist, Aurora, who seeks asylum in Canada after her husband is killed. Years later, living in Toronto with her now-teenage daughter, Lucía, Aurora begins to suspect the past has returned. But the film is as concerned with the day-to-day of Aurora and Lucía’s new lives — their friendships, their romances, their relationship with one another — as it is the plot itself.

Initially, I felt like some of the supporting actors weren’t quite able to sustain Rodriguez’s observational style as well as the film’s leads. But upon reflection, the stilted quality, the separation, the awkwardness, all feel intentional. Even after six and four years in Canada respectively, there is still a distance between Aurora and Lucía and the white Canadians in their lives. Rodriguez makes unconventional films that require patience. But if you give yourself over to them, the rewards will burrow their way deeper inside you than more conventional work. She’s a true artist and deserves far more acclaim than she’s already received — for this film and for all her films.

Soft (dir. Joseph Amenta)

Nonbinary filmmaker Joseph Amenta’s debut film was initially announced at TIFF under the title, Pussy. The change is fitting for a movie that follows Julian, a rebellious genderqueer kid who learns that he’s just as soft as the friends he calls this supposed insult. Matteus Lunot as Julian and Miyoko Anderson as Dawn, the trans woman he lives with, ground the story with their deeply felt, lived-in performances. The film’s dramatic turns don’t all work, but it’s just such a joy to watch Julian run around with his friends oscillating between forced maturity and childish wonder. Oftentimes low-budget first features could use more plot — here I wished for less. Amenta is better at — and seems more excited by — capturing the daily minutiae of their queer misfits than exploring the script’s harsh realities. But harsh realities get cis funding, and this still manages to be a hopeful, loving debut that has me excited for what Amenta will do next.

Something You Said Last Night (dir. Luis De Filippis)

Full review.

Susie Searches (dir. Sophie Kargman)

Our society’s obsession with true crime is a topic with much to explore. Susie Searches is not interested in this exploration. Instead, in its quest to riff on Hitchcock and have a #unlikeablefemaleprotagonist, it becomes one of the most insidious works of police propaganda I’ve seen in recent years. The film is directed by a white woman and is written by a white man. The decision to cast Kiersey Clemons as the lead shifts the story from satire to twisted commentary. But even if supporting actor Rachel Sennott — the only actor who captures a tone that might’ve worked for the film — was the lead, the script would still be rife with problems. Beyond her race, Susie is a character who doesn’t make sense. She feels less like a person — even a stylized person in a thriller — and more like a Frankenstein’s monster of a character changed across dozens of rewrites. Scene to scene, she is a different person with different motivations and different behaviors.

I don’t blame Kiersey Clemons for taking this meaty role when her alternative is playing the love interest in Am I OK?, but I do question an industry that has nothing for a queer Black girl beyond a character who VOLUNTEERS AT A POLICE STATION WITH LOVABLE POLICE OFFICERS FOR FUN. And I’m not even getting into the movie’s fucked up takes on class and mental illness nor its misrepresentation of how forensic evidence works. June of 2020 was supposed to prompt a change in how Hollywood told stories of police. Instead, it’s caused a backlash of even more harmful work. Susie Searches is one of the worst culprits.

This Place (dir. V.T. Nayani)

The stories that have been told of lesbian romances have been limited. This isn’t a new statement. Most people know that queer cinema — like all cinema — is far, far whiter than the world we live. But this is usually spoken about in terms of inclusivity, and so the response in recent years has been to plop people of color into the same stories that have always been told. V.T. Nayani’s debut This Place is a lesbian romance that has never been told. The romance itself is an escape, a connection, a reminder to both women that they can’t move forward until they look back. The conflicts of the film do not come come from the usual tropes but rather from the scars of colonialism, the challenges of immigration, the fights recently fought, and those left to fight. This is the rare lesbian film with an interracial relationship that doesn’t include a white person, but to celebrate that alone is to ignore the real achievement: the specificity in how the film portrays their cultural backgrounds, the specificity in how the film portrays these individual characters.

The women are Malai (Priya Guns), a Tamal woman whose family immigrated from Sri Lanka, and Kawenniióhstha (Devery Jacobs), a Mohawk woman whose father she never met is Iranian. The film is as much about their separate explorations of their pasts as it is the connection they find with each other. All of these threads of story are balanced deftly, always grounded in the people, the cultures, the places, and the time periods on display. The performances and the filmmaking create a palpable intimacy on-screen, between the romantic leads, between the families. Even as the film deals with serious topics, a warmth pervades. I couldn’t ethically do a full review of this one because I know Devery — and honestly a writer of color could respond to this film in a way I can’t — but I promise Autostraddle will be sure to bring lots more coverage of this one when it gets released!

Devery Jacobs as Kawenniióhstha looks at Priya Guns as Malai in soft pink and blue lighting with one hand touching her hair.

Devery Jacobs and Priya Guns in This Place

Unruly (dir. Malou Reymann)

I do not know the history of young women being institutionalized in 1930s Denmark. But I do know other histories of young women being institutionalized. And while this film is well-made and brutal in the ways it wants to be brutal, it’s at best absurd and at worst homophobic that none of the girls held at this facility are queer but the women who run it are a lesbian couple. It’s literally an island where girls with loose morals and sexual perversions were sent. I don’t believe their captors were the only queers. The film also continuously makes the point that these girls are not disabled and therefore do not deserve this treatment — as if the single disabled character is somehow more deserving of such cruelty. Straight sex and motherhood for neurotypical women are the freedoms this movie wants to focus on, and in doing so its story feels incomplete. I left this film wanting to know far more about this history — the real history.

Valeria is Getting Married (dir. Michal Vinik)

Lesbian filmmaker Michael Vinik’s debut film Blush was a queer coming-of-age tale that examined the link between Israeli masculinity, homophobia, and anti-Palestinian bigotry. Her follow-up once again explores Israeli masculinity, this time through the story of two Ukrainian sisters participating in arranged marriages. At 75 minutes, this is a tight, powerful film with strong performances, nuanced writing (also from Vinik), and cinematography that suffocates its primary location without ever feeling boring. Once again, Vinik has made a political film that centers the humanity of her individual characters above simple messages — this only makes her themes more resonant, her politics deeper.

The Water (dir. Elena López Riera)

A coming-of-age story about three generations of women in rural Spain, Elena López Riera’s feature debut utilizes her documentary background with an added sense of magic. There’s a lot in this film about spirituality and womanhood, romance, fate, and family, but it’s honestly at its best in low-key scenes of its young protagonist and her crew of close friends. And I’m not just saying that because one of them is a funny, heartsick lesbian.

Wendell and Wild (dir. Henry Selick)

This is an animated kids movie about how private prisons are way more evil than literal demons. How could I not love it?? This collaboration feels entirely like a Henry Selick movie and entirely like a Jordan Peele movie, and so there just ends up being a lot of movie for a short run time. But even if it isn’t the most polished work from either filmmaker, all the mess is so delightful, it’s hard to complain. Not only does this give us a goth Black girl lead — it also has a Latino trans boy at her side. This isn’t just inclusive children’s entertainment — it’s inclusive children’s entertainment that actually engages with the realities of the people it represents.

Of course, there are some limits to the politics of a kids movie made by Netflix — private prisons may be the villain but bad guys getting arrested and, I guess, going to public prison is still seen as a triumph. This isn’t quite the queer abolitionist kids movie we really deserve. But it’s a step! And it includes some hilarious satire of the Democratic Party and their allegiance to “the rules” — or at least I’m choosing to view this as satire and not approval. Politics aside, it has all the magic and darkness you’ve come to expect from Henry Selick and all the wit and thoughtfulness you get with Jordan Peele. For kids and adults, this is a Halloween must-watch.

In Henry Selick's signature animation style, a goth Black girl with green hair walks past students and nuns holding a big boombox.

Kat voiced by Lyric Ross in Wendell and Wild

When Morning Comes (dir. Kelly Fyffe-Marshall)

The primary conflict in Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s debut is the impact of colonialism in Jamaica. It’s an impact that turns a mother sending away her son into her greatest act of love. Jamaica is shown with so much affection, the communities so warm — it’s only the economic opportunities that are lacking. On the cusp of his tenth birthday, Jamaica has everything the truly adorable Jamal (Djamari Roberts) could need. We spend most of the film with Jamal as he says his goodbyes to the only place he’s known. Occasionally, we shift to his mother Neesha (Shaquana Wilson) and are made aware why she’s made this difficult decision. The camera floats around Jamal as if it’s trying to catch him. Like it’s his mother trying to cherish their last days, or like his future self trying to hold on to memories. It’s a beautiful, emotional film that always leads with love — not the kind of love found in cliches, but a truer, selfless love. This will make you cry. Every tear is earned.

Will-o’-the-Wisp (dir. João Pedro Rodrigues)

I feel like I would have appreciated this queer fantasia more if I knew more about Portuguese politics, Portuguese history, and, specifically, Portugal’s relationship to race and colonialism. But even if some of the nuances were lost on me, it’s hard not to appreciate this bonkers gay musical about royalty and climate change. Oh and firemen. Lots of firemen. Of various genders and sexualities. I’m looking forward to reading more about this, but even on the surface this is a bold and unique work of queer art.

Women Talking (dir. Sarah Polley)

Full review.

The Young Arsonists (dir. Sheila Pye)

Writer/director Sheila Pye has a background in photography and visual art. That’s clear from her debut feature. She does not have a background in writing. Unfortunately, that’s also clear. This is a coming-of-age story, a friendship story, a family drama, and a lesbian romance. It deals with topics ranging from domestic violence to self-harm, incest rape to suicide. The dialogue does not do any of these topics justice and its young cast working with this script and an inexperienced director cannot rise above the words. It all feels so false, and that’s a shame because the visuals are really stunning. The music and sound design are lovely too — especially for a low-budget film. I wish Pye had leaned more into her artistic sensibilities, taken out the over-explaining narration, and let her film be poetically underwritten instead of painfully overwritten. When a movie is meant to be gritty and it fails at realism, all that remains is the misery.

If you want a loose ranking of all the films I saw at TIFF, click here

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 566 articles for us.


    • Causeway is on Apple+ November 4th and The Fabelmans is in theatres November 11th, but mostly of the smaller titles still don’t have distribution so release dates are unclear.

      Super excited that Neon bought How to Blow Up a Pipeline and All the Beauty and the Bloodshed though. That means we should know release info for those soon.

  1. This is such a great overview, Drew. It’s made me even more excited about seeing This Place, Saint Omer and Wendell and Wild and moderated my expectations for The Inspection, Susie Searches and On the Come Up. It’s put Joyland and Other People’s Children on my radar…and well…I think your opinion is enough reason for me to skip The Young Arsonist all together.

  2. Drew!!! You saw so many movies! I think I got my watchlist up to at least 500 now. I can’t wait for these to come out to the public.
    Couldn’t help but scream in excitement when i read the description for Dry Ground Burning. This place also sounds really great.

  3. Just a note that the characters in the film ROSIE don’t actually identify as trans. It’s unfortunate that assumptions were made, and that the review only reinforces the colonized perspective. I saw the film, heard Indigenous writer/director Maurice talk, and also read a great article about it in Xtra magazine. She wrote it from an Indigenous perspective in which there is no gender. Also, I still need to learn more, but in my University studies we are covering the fact that gender fluidity was the way in many Indigenous cultures and that it was colonization that forced everyone into living in a binary Western world. I think it’s great that we are starting to hear more about this perspective. Even if you don’t like the film, it’s important to note that the Indigenous perspective of gender – and not forcing people into labels and identities – is a worthy one.

    • I would love to have more work that embraces gender fluidity beyond a colonized cultural binary. But both of these characters are white and there is nothing to suggest these characters are anything other than trans (as far as the white culture they live in on-screen is concerned). Their storylines are also very cliché trans stories.

      But I definitely hear you re: the perspective of gender the filmmaker might be bringing. And I probably should have addressed that in writing about the film rather than being snarky. It’s just complicated when the characters being portrayed are not from that culture and are fitting into traditional trans clichés — in a way that feels false due in part to the cis performers. Especially when it’s still such a common occurrence across cinema.

  4. On FABLEMANS, Spielberg’s father didn’t finance his first feature, as the critic writes. That was a feature-length amateur film you’re referring to, a film that had one public screening for the teenaged director. Universal financed Spielberg’s first professional feature; he worked for them through the merits of his talents. These things are also clearly on the public record and not at all hush-hush, as the critic alleges.

    • I’ve seen 29 of Spielberg’s features including Duel. When I was in preschool I drew a picture of a man in a baseball cap holding a camera when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up — that was supposed to be Spielberg. I read my first book about his life and career before I entered middle school. I know what I’m talking about.

      His dad did not finance Duel but getting to make a self-financed feature to hone your craft is still something must of us did not get. And it’s established fact that he got his first industry jobs through his dad’s connections. It’s fine. It’s how the industry works. It just would’ve been a meaningful detail in the film.

      • Apologies, I guess I didn’t realize your expertise on Mr. Spielberg’s work from having read a book about him before you entered middle school (got confused when you made such a false claim and now doubled-down on the error). I should read up on the man’s history and career more, I guess.

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