Film writers Fariha Roísín and Sara Black McCulloch are covering the Toronto International Film Festival this year as a series of conversations about the festival and its programming. This, the second dispatch includes the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, Hungry Hearts, and No Soy Lorena.
Fariha: We're almost ending our time here at TIFF—and so we bring you our second dispatch from the festival! Today we're focusing on family and identity and how often those two things interconnect and are affected heavily by the other. The films we'll be talking about are Love & Mercy, a Brian Wilson (of the The Beach Boys) biopic, directed by Bill Pohlad and starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as young and old Wilson, respectively. Then we've got Hungry Hearts, directed by Saverio Costanzo and starring one of my favorite actors—Adam Driver—and Alba Rohrwacher, as a couple that fall in love in New York City, to say the least. It's based on the novel by Marco Franzoso entitled, "The Indigo Child." Lastly, we have a beautiful debut from Chilean director—Isidora Marras, in a superb first feature titled No Soy Lorena, which stars fellow Chilean actress, Loreta Aravena as Olivia—a girl who is a victim of identity theft.
Sara: Love & Mercy played up familial roles—and not just within a household, but also within a professional setting (say, a band and recording studio). This one in particular dealt with the dual role of "father" and "showbiz dad"—in this case, Murry Wilson—and how those roles affected his son, Brian Wilson. The tensions between them really escalated while Wilson was making Pet Sounds, "Good Vibrations," and Smile. Murry, once the manager of The Beach Boys, was upset that Brian fired him, and that always surfaces in their interactions with each other. For example, while Brian is fiddling with the arrangement for "God Only Knows," he asks Murry what he thinks about the song. His father dismisses it immediately, as he seems especially upset that Brian is taking over creative control of the band's sound. So, we have a combination of familial tension and a struggle for creative control. It's like watching Svengali try to regain his hold over Trilby.
Fariha: I'd known a little about Brian Wilson's life prior to watching the film. I knew that he had suffered from mental breakdowns, "auditory hallucinations," and that he was manic depressive throughout his youth—particularly during the creation of the seminal album that is Pet Sounds. I just never knew to what extent he was ill. I was a huge Beach Boys fan growing up, so the nostalgia of watching Brian Wilson (who is played here by Paul Dano) tinged with the sad reality of his life, was confronting. The story that unfolded—the allegations of his abuse from his father, then from his pseudo father-like manager (played by the always scarily-on-point, Paul Giamatti) reminded me of the turmoils of celebrity youth. Not to give anyone an exemption, because being famous comes with a great amount of privilege, but it is troubling to see how many famous people battle with their demons publically. In such a fierce environment, as so many people demand so much of you, your life somehow becomes a sublimation for those people's creative needs. I don't know if this film is an honest portrayal of the rest of the Beach Boys, but they definitely seemed like nonchalant jerks. You know, those idiosyncratic "long hair, don't care" Californian dudes. Maybe their lack of sympathy was used as a dramatic arc, but I did definitely sympathize with Brian in the beginning. I can't imagine the frustrations of being this strange specimen in a society that wants show tunes, and ballads out of you. It's interesting that the reaction to him and his music was so vastly different compared to The Beatles. Those four were always accepted in whatever creative endeavor they wanted to experiment in—but perhaps that's more emblematic of the tersely conservative US vs. eccentric friendly UK?
Sara: It harks back to what we were talking about with Clouds of Sils Maria—the roles that are forced upon/expected of successful entertainers—especially younger performers. But it was worse at an earlier time, when musicians had to be clean cut and sing about puppy love and cute girls. And you see Brian break down—this pivotal breaking point—where he screams "Surfers don't even listen to our music! We don't even surf!" I mean there's a framework in place—or, as his cousin Mike Love keeps saying, "a formula"— that they're supposed to stick to in order to be "number one." Diverging from it was a huge, costly risk. Brian is the outlier because he wants to do something different—create new sounds. He's also taking on this leadership role and there's push back because he's not being a man and leader the way his father thinks he should be. It's a constant power struggle, and eventually his father sells the rights to the Beach Boys songs, which is a final stab at Brian (because he wrote most of the songs).
Fariha: Seeing Brian as an outlier was really interesting, because you know that is what actually happened. It's ironic that creatives are not only often misunderstood (which is a trope) but also struggle to fully communicate their vision, as so much of the time it's lodged underneath so much self denial, and fear, as it seemed to be in Brian's case. That scene where his dad's like "LOL, sold the rights to your music!" And Brian (Dano) is holding back tears, calming himself down between the records that surrounding him, going into a happy place so he keeps his cool—that was just horrible. Can you imagine the lawsuits if that happened today? I can't believe that Pet Sounds, being the critically and culturally relevant album that it still is today, didn't quite translate immediately to someone like Murry Wilson, or Mike Love. It's absurd to me that so much of Brian's early music career was consumed by so much inadequacy that was obviously transplanted to him via the (supposed) horrible people in his life. Which sadly, were his family. I get solace out of the fact that those songs, and albums, have had such a huge cultural legacy—and I hope Brian does, too.
Sara: There is a predominant formula to the rock bio/misunderstood and tortured genius film and a lot of times, we get nothing new. I think Love & Mercy was trying to bring in some new ideas—like what it takes to fight for artistic vision when no one can understand what it is you're trying to do. But, there was still something that was missing for me: this is supposed to be a story about Brian's rich, inner world, and nothing—not visually, or even aurally!—was done to render that life on screen. Brian Wilson has said that he heard voices telling him they were going to hurt him—that was all mainly left out too. What we get instead is this layering of sounds—how the echoes and sound patterns come together to form, what we know as these catchy and beautiful songs.
The point they keep making too is how Brian's songs sound happy, but the lyrics themselves are so disturbing. There is a constant reference to how Brian's lyrics—and how his direction—are going to ruin the legacy of the band. There's a cost to pushing imagination—pushing it to produce so much. Although we get this muffled, overload of this layering of sounds and instruments in Brian's head—that's as far as it goes. It's a shame, because Brian was reaching for something so intangible. I get that that's very difficult to translate onto screen, but recall that this is a story that fans know so well and there's even footage of the making of Pet Sounds online. It just didn't feel finished and it was definitely a half hour too long.
Fariha: All in all, the narrative was compelling. Brian's life has been one complicated and eviscerated by his illness—and people's inability to comprehend him within that context. It's obviously a story close to people's hearts, because of his reach and influence as an entertainer, but ultimately, as you said, the movie itself hinged on stereotypes of other rock musicians and their bios, and failed to provide anything new. At a certain part, I didn't care about Brian's pain anymore. I wasn't invested in the end. I also thought Elizabeth Bank's storyline as Melinda Ledbetter was way too drawn out.
Sara: Another film we saw that dealt with family and the roles of family members was Saverio Costanzo's Hungry Hearts. The story follows the relationship of Jude and Mina, from their courtship in a fart-filled restaurant bathroom to the birth of their child. What was interesting and ultimately discomforting about this film was how our perception of mothers was challenged. We're told that women are nurturers because biology, and that they're supposed to care for their children. Mina, convinced that she is bearing an Indigo Child, decides to purify him. The audience's perceptions are challenged as doctors tell Jude the child is starving and not growing. We're forced to wonder whether Mina is a caring and devoted mother or ultimately a self-destructive force.
Fariha: Hungry Hearts was so hard to watch. I kept thinking back to the perfect opening—the warmth, the charm, the humor of being trapped in a miasmic public bathroom with your future lover, who you currently don't know, who is having very bad diahorrea in the only cubicle in the downstairs of a Chinese restaurant. Oh yeah, and you're literally trapped—the door won't open to let you out. It was beautifully resonant and hopeful—a great balance for a romance, which is what I wanted it to be. The back and forth between Driver and Rohrwacher was so languidly dreamy. I was expecting the film to be as full as the first few shots, rich and colorful, but as we moved into the thick of it, everything became dense with fear and pain. The colors started fading, and it reminded me a lot like Michel Gondry's latest film L'Écume Du Jours (Mood Indigo) in that as both female leads—Mina and Chloe (Audrey Tatou) get sicker, the color palette of both film becomes more insipid, and subdued, fading somewhat like Jude's love for Mina.
I had a lot of frustrations with the film primarily because I wasn't sure what was going on. Nothing is ever said; only intimated. Does Mina have postpartum depression? You're never quite sure. Even if she did—it felt strange that a man was trying to characterize this, and maybe that's why it never felt completely realized as a film for me. Constanzo may have purposely wanted this level of confusion because at times he used a fisheye lens to emphasize Mina's weight loss—and to question her insanity and authority. Besides, so much of her screen time towards the end is consumed by ominous horror themed music to increase the level of claustrophobia that you feel whilst watching the film. I found myself hating her, but how much of that reaction is designed for you? I'd say a lot of it. I walked out of a cinema where most people were discussing how Mina was ultimately a crazy bitch. If that's the lasting legacy of the film, then it's incredibly dismissive of the process of motherhood.
Sara: It reminded me of Repulsion a lot—that terrifying, seemingly delicate woman. We observe her on the surface, and what is so threatening, is that we don't know very much about what is going on inside her head—there are just these violent actions. There's a focus—obsession—on what is put into the body and what comes out of it. The body, by design, is supposed to purify itself, and yet Mina wants to control as many variables as possible—germs, diet, atmosphere, cellphone radiation. The thing is, we're so consumed with what she's doing to the baby and to her body and yet we hardly know what's driving her. She mentions early on in the film that her mother died when she was young and that she hasn't seen her father in ages. She only has Jude and the baby. We hear little else about her past, her upbringing, and her mental health. What's also interesting is that the baby has no name, it's just a baby or "the baby," which reinforces its connection and dependence on the mother.
There's also this huge barrier in communication between Mina and Jude. The child is conceived when Mina finds out she's being transferred. She has sex with Jude and pleads with him not to come inside her, but before she's finished asking, he does. It's all on Mina and Jude doesn't discuss child rearing—he just says that he trusts her judgment. But he trusts her because she's the mother—he expects her to fulfill this role. Mina has to measure up to it, despite the fact that she never really had a maternal figure in her life.
So this film sets up expectations for us and we somehow have to trust Costanzo's judgment, although his primary concern seems to be the state of the child. Mina is wasting away and, although measures are taken to get the child out of her custody, nothing is done to help her, her condition, or even to better understand her. Essentially, all the women in this film are filtered into two categories: good or bad caregivers.
Fariha: That's a really good point. It's such a judgey film, in a lot of ways. Everybody has ideas about what motherhood stands for, what it is—what does it mean, what does it look like? We think we know what "a good mother" is, but that's comparable to how, societally, we also know what a "good woman" is. It's toxic to have these standards. It's emblematic that women who are bad at caregiving are ultimately presented as Medusa like old hags that (appropriately to the movie) deserve to die. I always think of that one scene in True Detective, where McConaughey really snaps. He's talking to a woman who kills three or four of her babies, and after he gets her to sign his confession, he tells her to go kill herself. The vitriol from Rust is told in a way that you sympathize with him, never with her. You're not even given a chance too, that's the thing. That's why film and TV are so vital to ideas of representation—most of the time it's about what you're not talking about that's so integral to change. Motherhood is such a tentative role, and it deserves an astute portrayal. I grew up with a mother kind of like Mina, and in fact I agreed with a lot of things that Mina was choosing for the baby, but at a certain point the films doesn't want you to see her side anymore, so she becomes a caricature, motivated only by selfishness. That's the only digestible way to see her. We are never given the opportunity to see what really motivates Mina, as you said. I'm sure there was a lot more going on in there, and it's a shame we never get to the bottom of it.
During his press conference, Costanzo seemed aware of the complexities of the story itself, but the final product sided in the favor of Jude—the rational father-figure, the man who is governed by science and a reasoned desire for the wellbeing of his child.
Ultimately, it's dark for everyone. I couldn't quite comprehend the end, but I knew it was coming. I'm still battling with what it represents. Although there's rationality to Jude's care for his baby, there's no rationality to the film's denouement. In that way, the film is manipulative, it makes you believe that's the only way it could end.
Although, all in all, it's a gorgeous film—and it's easy to get lost in the beauty of it. The cinematography of New York—the Coney Island wharf, Jude's mother's house snowed in around upstate New York—the whiteness of the milieu a stark contrast to Mina's bony uncovered legs as she walks past the ice and slush. The performances were amazing. Driver and Rohrwacher have so much chemistry, that it's no wonder they both won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival for Best Actress and Actor. There was an inseparability between them, and I believed every second of it.
Sara: Finally, we have No Soy Lorena, which tackles the issue of identity a little differently than the previous two films. Here we have familial ties—Olivia as a daughter tending to her mother, who is ill. And then we have Olivia, the actress, who is currently preparing for a role. Finally, Olivia, who is mistaken for a Lorena Ruiz. "I am not Lorena," is repeated by Olivia over and over again throughout the film. But soon, telling strangers who she is and isn't is the least of her worries.
Director Isidora Marras is bringing up issues of online identity, but also the fluidity of identity in real life: If Olivia dons a wig, is she still Olivia? If she is Lorena on paper or to a creditor, is she still Olivia? Olivia herself seems to be floating around, just barely getting by. So this is much less about how people posture online. It's also about how easily our online identities can be tied to larger, more powerful institutions and the consequences of these connections. Do you think this is an old story? Have we seen this story before on shows like Dateline? Or do you think Marras is updating this story?
Fariha: Not necessarily. I think the film itself was very well done. I was really impressed by Marras because I think she did a phenomenal job with the pacing of the whole film. It felt like a thriller and I think that's a hard thing to establish without being overwrought with clichés. So in that instance I don't think we've seen this story enough. Even though it's a narrative that we're familiar with, it is in a completely different backdrop, told in a very different way. South American Cinema doesn't have a lot of female directors, and this is a modern story told in the context of Latin America, and I welcome that change.
I also really enjoyed the fact that Olivia's identity fraud was completely juxtaposed against her mother who is suffering from impaired memory loss, a sudden strain of alzheimer's disease. I think it was a really great transition into a larger conversation about who we are without our memory; are we still people, are we still alive? What our identities, really? We've been watching a lot of films that tackle ego, whether in a subversive way or not. I mean it's arguable that the running theme of all the films we've watched has been about the EGO and how different people tackle this. Her mother was such a parallel question that lingered as we watched Olivia battle with being brutalized by a system that was enabled to destroy her (I particularly liked when she said to the police officer who had barred down her door to start gathering her things: "What are you staring at? Where are you when we actually need you?" and how the officer just gawks at her in a response, obviously surprised by her abrasiveness) and the bureaucracy of the system at large. At any given moment there's an institutional hurdle—which also seemed like a larger conversation about communication, and how impersonally we communicate now. Marras brought in a political dialogue in the lightest and most effective way. It was never overwhelming, or unnecessary, it was said with just the right amount of sass.
I am excited to see Marras' next film. I have great faith in her as a filmmaker.
Sara: This was the point I was trying to make with Love & Mercy: if this is a story or plotline the audience is familiar with—right down to every bureaucratic twist and turn—then give your audience a reason to feel invested in the story. And Marras does. She also sets this thriller/whodunnit against the backdrop of the student protests in Chile. Whenever they discuss the protests, the issue of debt—lowering the unpayable student debt—someone at the bank always makes fun of them. Debt has also seeped into Olivia's life and into her identity—she's counting down the payments until she's free and out of the red. And the color red is so much more prominent when Olivia is trying to find Lorena—the lighting in a club, for instance, creates a red glare that permeates the scene—the closer she is to finding out more about Lorena, the deeper she gets in the red. The real Lorena even stains Olivia's bank statement with her blood.
These last few films have confronted the issue of identity in different ways, but a common thread is that people who seem to feel lost are suddenly assigned an identity by some external source: a parent, partner, or institution. At times, it can be freeing and at others it can be suffocating. We're nearing the end of our TIFF coverage, so stay tuned for our last dispatch.
Image via AP