Crazy good lineup

This year's fest of films about mental illness and addiction is especially strong

RENDEVZOUS WITH MADNESS FILM FESTIVAL November 11-16 at various venues. See Indie & Rep Film.

Short fuse

Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, U.S.). 96 minutes. Monday (November 11), 7 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox. Rating: NNNN

Expanded from his 2008 short, Destin Daniel Cretton’s terrific first feature is a powerful, deeply felt character study of a young therapist (Brie Larson) at a San Francisco-area facility for disturbed children whose own issues come rushing to the surface when she meets a particularly troubled new intake (Kaitlyn Dever).

Cretton creates a dramatic environment that’s fraught with emotional tension, but doesn’t milk it the explosions of feeling seem natural rather than calculated, the result of totally believable interactions between the adults and the kids.

And he has an amazing eye for casting: Scott Pilgrim’s Larson and Justified’s Dever are both riveting, but supporting players John Gallagher Jr., Rami Malek, Stephanie Beatriz and Keith Stanfield are all terrific, too.


Crying uncle

PANDI (Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam, India/Canada). 60 minutes. Subtitled. Tuesday (November 12), 6:30 pm. TIFF Bell Lightbox. Rating: NNNN

When Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam’s uncle, Pandian (Pandi) Kumaraswamy, emigrated from India to Canada, he hoped to become a filmmaker. But his dreams were cut short by the pressure to earn a living and his burgeoning mental illness. His diagnosis here and later back in India varied from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder. He died when Ponnambalam was 12.

Now the filmmaker sets out to break the silence and mystery surrounding her uncle, interviewing relatives, mining old home movies and using Pandi’s own VHS and Super 8 footage. What she finds – layers of shame, guilt and misunderstanding – is sad but cathartic.

The most vivid sections are the playful and suggestive animation sequences (by Jessica Palmer) from an unproduced screenplay Pandi wrote, hinting at his obsessions with religion, capitalism and the actors Aishwarya Rai and Cindy Crawford.

Ponnambalam bookends the film with footage of her unseen uncle teaching her to use a video camera. Apropos, since she’s more than realized his goal of becoming a director.


Model family

RUNNING FROM CRAZY (Barbara Kopple, U.S.). 100 minutes. November 14, 6:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox. Rating: NNNN

When Ernest Hemingway shot himself in 1961, he left behind a lot more than his literary legacy. He also bequeathed a history of mental illness and substance abuse. As his granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway, reminds us in this absorbing documentary, there have been seven suicides in her family.

Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple interviews Hemingway extensively, discussing her supermodel sister Margaux, who died of an overdose at 41 (on the 35th anniversary of Ernest’s suicide) and her father, Jack, who, Mariel suggests, may have sexually abused her two older sisters. (Muffet, who has bipolar disorder, is still alive.)

There’s lots of rich material here about the silence and shame surrounding suicide. Mariel, a suicide awareness activist, calmly discusses her past with her own two daughters, one of whom is a supermodel herself. And in a telling sequence, Kopple captures Mariel exploding in a way that brings to mind the brutal family arguments she describes earlier in the film.

Sure, there’s a bit of New Age flimflam – Oprah Winfrey is a producer – but it’s still powerful stuff. Worth noting that while Mariel was born after her famous grandfather’s death, neither she nor anyone else in the doc seems to have picked up any of his books.


Sweet Honey

Honey (Valeria Golino, Italy/France). 94 minutes. Subtitled. November 15, 9:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox. Rating: NNN

Valeria Golino – the co-star of Hot Shots! and Rain Man – makes a strong directorial debut with this complex character study of a woman (The Best Of Youth’s Jasmine Trinca) who works as an angel of death, supplying the drugs and instructions to people wishing to end their lives with dignity. But when she discovers she’s delivered her latest package to an older man (Carlo Cecchi) who isn’t actually sick, everything she believes about her mission is thrown into question.

Honey isn’t an issue picture, but a focused character study. Golino and cinematographer Gergely Pohárnok do a fine job of putting us inside their hero’s head, subtly isolating her in crowd shots and letting subtle changes in Trinca’s expression represent genuine turmoil.

You might complain that there are a few too many shots of her looking soulfully into the middle distance as she contemplates her own life choices, but that’s sort of the point.



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