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Bad Girls Theme For This Year's Toronto International Film Festival

Harlan Jacobson for WBGO

The 42nd Toronto International Film Festival concludes this weekend.

Toronto has been the home of big titles for the past two decades, ramping up from a local festival at its inception to becoming the dominant film festival in North America—the other key festival in North America being Sundance -- and one of the three or four key debut festivals in the world. Think American Beauty some 18 years ago and Moonlight last year. That achievement reflects how the business model has changed over the last two or three decades, with the word festival something of a misnomer.

At TIFF, the somehow inappropriate acronym for a Canadian film festival where they thank the Native Americans for what is improbably termed “hosting” the festival on their land—nobody’s festivaling, per se. TIFF is a business convention. Where pictures with distribution preen for the press, and those without are like shelter puppies standing on their hind legs when the big people come by to take a look inside the cage.

Like Cannes, for Euro and world cinema, TIFF is a good chance to take the pulse and maybe see the zeitgeist of what’s buzzing in the culture that bubbles up in films. True, movies often take years to go from idea to the screen, but the process of financing and making the film sometimes just isn’t ready for the idea that undergirds the film…till it’s ready.

This year then seems to be the year of the Bad Girls, or at least the year of Women Living Dangerously. Of course, when there’s something like 250 films, including 220 features, 26 docs and four oldies, there are lots of ways to slice and dice the film selection, of which I’ve seen all in maybe 50 or 60 films counting those that began in Sundance or Cannes—and those I missed outright, like Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, about the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. But make no mistake about it, there’s a confluence of free flowing estrogen in the films at TIFF this year.

No better example of that than I, Tonya, set in 1994, when Tonya Harding seemed to be behind the knee- smashing attack on rival figure skating competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, as they skate to qualify for the US team at the Lillehamer, Norway Olympics. I, Tonya is a brave, riveting film written by Steve Rogers, whose characters use direct address to rehash the story, expertly directed by Craig Gillespie. Their line of argument is not only that Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly were not involved in the attack—it was Gillooley’s idiot sidekick who took it on himself to line up a couple of goons to smash Kerrigan’s knee and reduce the concept of “hit men” to a tire iron. What’s brilliant about the film, however, over and above the brilliant performances of Margot Robbie as Harding and Alison Janney as her mom, LaVona Harding, is how squarely the film has landed directly on the cultural faultline in Trump’s America in 2017. I, Tonya makes the case that Harding, who was the first US skater to land the triple axel, and did it repeatedly for judges, was consistently denied her medals and victories because she was a working class tough who projected trailer trash rather than Disney princess. The film exonerates Harding, but moreover it asks film audiences—basically liberal democrats, since films is about empathy not upholding standards after all—to embrace a working class outlaw precisely at a time when Trump has let loose the dogs.

Indie actress Greta Gerwig makes her debut as a director in Lady Bird, in which Saoirse Ronan (fromBrooklyn two years ago) plays a Catholic school senior in Sacramento who desperately, sincerely, and badly wants to break free and go to Barnard College. Written by Gerwig, it’s her story too.

French director Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians is the purest example of brilliant, old school filmmaking, set on a northern French farm beginning in 1916. With the men off at war, French mega-star Nathalie Baye as the matriarch takes in Francine, played by Laura Smet, orphaned and 20, to work in the fields, the house, the kitchen. The story plays out reminiscent of Marcel Pagnol’s Provencal family tragedy in Jean de Florette—the stranger the family expels is the one member of the family who carries the line forward.

The festival opened with Borg/McEnroe about the 1980 collision between veteran Bjorn Borg chasing his 5th title at Wimbledon and upstart John McEnroe. In McEnroe, the infamous raging infant of tennis, director Janus Metz found a perfect part for Shia LaBeouf, to run headlong into headstrong Borg, played by Sverrir Gudnasson. The premise in Borg/McEnroe is solid enough; the pair represented both a clash of competing versions of manhood as well as cultures, European repression, American expression.

But more compelling is Battle of the Sexes, yet a second tennis film at Toronto, this one about the infamous 1973 stunt tennis match between Billie Jean King and the 55 year-old Bobbie Riggs, who rouses King to battle for the honor of her sex while he just wants to put the show back in chauvinism. And make a few bucks.SO he calls her up from a phone booth, chimes at midnight...

(Film Clip)

Directed by team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who ‘ve been looking for a solid hit since they directed Little Miss Sunshine back in 2006, the films toplines Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carrell as Riggs. Do you count Dame Judi Dench as a bad girl in her role as Queen Victoria scandalizing the court by admitting a yuoung Indian man to her inner circle in the last year of her life, in Stephen Frears Victoria & Abdul? You be the judge.

Jessica Chastain definitely counts as a bad girl in Molly’s Game, about Molly Bloom, a failed Olympic ski champion turned poker salon madam. Jessica Chastain is razor sharp and sexy in a film where there probably hasn’t been this much voiceover narration that worked so well in film history. But writer Aaron Sorkin, here making his debut as a director and using Blooom’s memoir as a template, let’s this modern Joycean woman—who says yes yes yes to the hand she’s dealt-- play it outout better than a royal flush.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.