TIFF Next Wave Fest brings on the energy and the intensity

Spend the weekend bingeing on cutting-edge cinema from around the world – and if you're under 25, it's (mostly) free!

TIFF NEXT WAVE FILM FESTIVAL from Thursday (February 15) to Sunday (February 18) at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West). tiff.net/nextwave Rating: NNNN

You know what I love about the TIFF Next Wave film festival? The intensity.

In just two days, you can power through screening after screening of cutting-edge cinema, usually in the company of other cineastes who want to know what’s going on beyond our own borders. And if you’re under 25, admission to most screenings is free, with the other special events going at a discount.

It all kicks off at the Lightbox Thursday (February 15) with a special In Conversation With event featuring Amandla Stenberg, the young star of last summer’s Everything, Everything and the upcoming drama The Hate U Give.

Friday (February 16) is given over to the annual Battle Of The Scores, with six high-school bands competing to soundtrack a scene from a film, and the opening night party. And on the weekend, it’s all about the movies.

If there’s a theme to this year’s Saturday movie marathon, which starts at noon and ends about 11 hours later, I can’t quite crack it: Bend It Like Beckham, Bring It On, Dazed And Confused, Attack The Block and Paris Is Burning all seem fairly different. Sure, the first two are more or less sports movies, and the last three all create a vivid sense of place and time. But beyond that, I have no idea.

The film program includes the Toronto premieres of two highly anticipated studio releases: Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds (Saturday, 9:30 pm), starring Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy and, in his final screen performance, Anton Yelchin – and Greg Berlanti’s much-anticipated Love, Simon (Sunday, 7:30 pm), with Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel. Neither of those was available for review, so I’ll recommend a few titles that I have seen.

I really liked Dustin Guy Defa’s Person To Person (Sunday, 5 pm), a ramshackle comedy that follows a handful of New Yorkers around the city on what looks like a really nice day. 

Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson is a rookie reporter chasing a murder investigation and trying to figure out whether her boss (Michael Cera) is an awkward creep, or just awkward a vinyl enthusiast (Bene Coopersmith) negotiates the purchase of a rare Charlie Parker LP and a sullen teen (Tavi Gevinson) cranks her way through an extended hangout with her best friend (Olivia Luccardi).

It’s lively and eccentric, just like its characters, and Defa clearly loves piling on idiosyncratic story points. There’s enough going on in Person To Person to drive an entire season of television, but at just 84 minutes the film never feels overstuffed.

I also loved High Fantasy (Sunday, 7:45 pm), a terrific TIFF holdover from South African filmmaker Jenna Bass. Shot on an iPhone, the film follows four lively young people (Qondiswa James, Lisa Scholtz, Francesca Varrie Michel, Nala Khumalo) who drive to a remote farm for a weekend getaway, wake up to find they’ve switch bodies and freak out.

What first seems like a gimmicky no-budget project turns out to be an ingenious way to explore issues of sex, race and gender that run deep in the South African character. These kids grew up in a post-apartheid world, but all those tensions are still coiled underneath, waiting to rise and complicate an already impossible situation.

Without any special visual effects, Bass and her actors play out the scenario with impressive facility, shifting from goofy teasing to raw-nerve honesty – and back again – as easily as they swap identities.

The festival closes with Axolotl Overkill (Sunday, 10 pm), a blast of bratty, self-indulgent attitude from writer/director Helene Hegemann, adapting the novel she published when she was just 17.

Hegemann was criticized at the time for lifting chunks of her book’s text from a novel by the pseudonymous blogger Airen rather than apologize, she acknowledged the borrowing and chalked it up to remix culture. The movie similarly riffs on half a century of restless-youth pictures as rebellious Berlin teen Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) sleeps around, goes to clubs, does too many drugs and fights with her family.

But it’s not just a knock-off the movie has a perspective and an identity of its own, thanks to Bauer’s ferocity and fine work from cinematographer Manuel Dacosse and editor Bettina Böhler. I suspect Hegemann had something to do with it, too.

For the full schedule and ticket details, visit the festival website.

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