Sometimes, when I select my TIFF films, I try to create some kind of theme, whether it be for the overall collection of screenings or just the movies I see on a given day. On Friday, I selected two films dealing with groups of teenaged girls – one set at a hoity-toity boarding school in the UK, the other set in the gang-riddled streets of South Central Los Angeles.
First up was Cracks (5/8), a drama that I’d really been looking forward to seeing but one that left me feeling rather frustrated with its storytelling and choices. Directed by Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley) and positively dripping with homoerotic subtext, the story centers on Miss G (Eva Green), an exotic and alluring housemother to a group of enamored boarding-school students in the 1930s. In their eyes, she’s a daring goddess… but when a young Spanish aristocrat (Maria Valverde) arrives and indirectly upsets the balance of power among the young women, things get very weird. For the first 45 minutes or so of the film, I loved it and thought “this is a full-pie film!,” but when it became painfully obvious that the filmmakers were going to pull out the tired old “unbalanced lesbian predator” card, I deflated in my seat. Arguments can be made that the behavior of the film’s characters has little to do with sexuality and more to do with power, and that’s fine and I can buy that… but based on the conversations I overheard as the audience left the theater, I’m not sure that’s what people took away from what they saw. It’s a gorgeously shot film with some terrific performances, but its final third kind of undermines those things, in my opinion.
Juxtaposing the idyllic setting of Cracks was Down For Life (6/8), a gritty – both in terms of subject matter and storytelling – drama about a teenaged girl named Rascal (Jessica Romero, in a terrific debut), who wants out of the gang life she’s lived for years. Filled with plenty of hard-hitting story points and turning an unflinching eye on the brutal violence that permeates every corner of Rascal’s life, the film spends a day in her world as she struggles with her future. It was interesting to experience the movie in a packed theater, alongside folks who clearly didn’t know what they were getting when they picked this screening – gasps and audible shock sprung up from time to time.
But perhaps the most surprising thing happened before the screening even began, when one of the producers stood onstage to welcome us, and informed us that the lead actress (Romero) – a complete unknown, who’d been a ward of the state when she was cast and for whom special provisions had to be made for the shooting and promotion of the project – was now incarcerated in a juvenile detention center as a result of some bungled red tape and her trip to TIFF. It was a strangely sobering way to kick off a decidedly sobering screening.