THE WAY HE LOOKS (Daniel Ribeiro, Brazil). 95 minutes. Thursday (May 22), 8 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. Rating: NNNN
This year's fest opener is a warm and sensitive coming-of-age picture about Leo (Ghilherme Lobo), a blind teen in São Paulo who's trying to establish his independence from his over-protective parents. His bestie, the witty, perceptive Giovana (Tess Amorim), walks him home from class every day, but their relationship changes when the handsome, curly-haired Gabriel (Fabio Audi) transfers to their school.
First-time director Daniel Ribeiro handles the material gracefully, getting spontaneous, layered and believable performances from the young actors and never tipping his hand about where the plot's headed. He's also got a great eye, investing a scene involving a hoodie and another in which Leo teaches Gabriel how to read Braille with complex emotions.
And the score, which includes music by Arvo Pärt and Belle and Sebastian, feels like a separate character. It's a perfect date movie.
52 TUESDAYS (Sophie Hyde, Australia). 114 minutes. June 1, 7:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. Rating: NN
52 Tuesdays, the festival's closing gala, is an earnest film about an important subject, but it's hamstrung by a tedious gimmick and a script that doesn't know where it's going.
In the opening minutes, 16-year-old Aussie Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) learns that her mother, Jane (Del Herbert-Jane), is transitioning to become James. It's decided that during the process, Billie will live with her dad and visit James for a few hours every Tuesday.
But things don't go as planned. As seen in 52 sequences, James experiences side effects during treatment, and both Billie and James keep secrets from each other.
Director Sophie Hyde shot the film on actual consecutive Tuesdays with non-professional actors, and that gives the film some authenticity. And the issues around the transition are illuminating.
But there are huge gaps in plausibility, especially in a subplot involving Billie's extracurricular activities with friends. And while Cobham-Hervey is certainly a find, she comes across like a supermodel slumming in an indie film, not a real teen.
TRU LOVE (Kate Johnston, Shauna MacDonald, Canada). 87 minutes. Saturday (May 24), 7:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. Rating: NNN
When commitment-phobe Tru (co-director Shauna MacDonald) meets Alice (Kate Trotter) - the mom of Suzanne (Christine Horne), one of her one-night stands - she's shocked to discover herself falling for the older woman.
The film has a seriously soapy quality, and the scenes between Alice and the ghost of her ex-husband get in the way. And why would conflicted Suzanne set up Alice's introduction to Tru in the first place?
But MacDonald is absolutely winning as the title character and makes you care about what happens.
OF GIRLS AND HORSES (Monika Treut, Germany). 82 minutes. May 29, 9:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2. Rating: NNN
In this latest entry from iconic director Monika Treut, teenage troublemaker Alex (Ceci Chuh) is sent to a horse farm near Hamburg operated by Nina (Vanida Karun) to straighten out.
The film is beautifully shot, and German veteran Treut has big fun using horseback riding as an erotic metaphor. Don't expect much action - either narrative or sexual - though. The girls do a lot of playing in the hay, and a sex scene between Nina and her girlfriend is so sanitized it hurts.
What happened to the audacious director who knocked us out with Seduction: The Cruel Woman almost 30 years ago? I miss her.
Life's a beach for The Foxy Merkins' Jackie Monahan (left) and Lisa Haas.
THE FOXY MERKINS (Madeleine Olnek, U.S.). 90 minutes. May 31, 6:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. Rating: NNNN
Here's another irresistible no-budget pic from the woman who brought you Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.
Madeleine Olnek deploys her unique style - playful and off-the-wall - in this story of lesbian hookers Margaret (Lisa Haas) and Jo (Jackie Monahan), who trick by day and live in the Port Authority bus terminal by night.
Olnek's obviously having a blast making the endearing Margaret a sex object for horny housewives. But it's the wonderfully wide-eyed Haas - who was a riot as the Space Alien - who makes this pic so appealing.
Derby Crazy Love is fast, fun and smart.
DERBY CRAZY LOVE (Maya Gallus, Justine Pimlott, Canada). 68 minutes. June 1, 5:15 pm. TIFF Bell Lightbox 2. Rating: NNNN
This high-energy doc by local filmmakers Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott follows the Montreal New Skids, a gritty roller derby team attempting to achieve world-class status.
The players, all of them unpaid, are courageous in their commitment, and great camera work gives a real sense of how physically demanding the sport is. Though in its earliest incarnation roller derby came off as the equivalent of men's staged wrestling, it's serious business these days.
The doc is light on analysis of how class plays into the sport, but the filmmakers take deep pleasure in the ways roller derby women subvert gender stereotypes.
Fast, fun and smart.
Matt Bomer (left) and Mark Ruffalo stall in The Normal Heart.
THE NORMAL HEART (Ryan Murphy, U.S.). 128 minutes. Friday (May 23), 9 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. Rating: NN
Larry Kramer's 1985 play The Normal Heart, about New York gays terrified by a growing plague they could not understand, was written for its community, absolutely in the moment - so much so that the set included numbers representing the death toll that grew greater with every performance.
The film is a look back, made for the mainstream, and it trips up from its first moment. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is at a Fire Island party where body-beautiful guys are hooking up like crazy. Later he witnesses a gay cluster-hump in a public park.
Weeks is plainly not into either, and the sequence turns into an exercise in blame-laying so egregious as to make you wonder what gay director Ryan Murphy and adaptor Kramer were thinking.
Ruffalo, as the enraged writer trying to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic, has all the passion required, and the rest of the cast, including Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons and Jonathan Groff as volunteers at Gay Men's Health Crisis, pull their weight.
But the characters are thin, largely because the play's major speeches representing their points of view are cut to ribbons. Even Weeks's famous monologue about why he's proud to be gay is eviscerated.
The only still-intact theatrical high point is that of the lone doctor treating AIDS patients, desperate for funding. She even gets an extra, totally unnecessary scene where she tries to get out of her wheelchair.
That's what happens when Julia Roberts plays a role.