The occasional “Brooklyn” or “Inside Out” notwithstanding, this has not been a great few years for the once-towering category of the movie tear-jerker. Blame it on irony, or a tendency toward the meta, or the simple fact that movies lately have been busy trying to get us to do a lot of other things besides cry. Whatever the reason, Kleenex shortages are not multiplexes’ main problem these days.
Yet at the cinematic barrage that is the Toronto International Film Festival over the past week, it’s been hard to ignore a sub-trend of sorts: There has been an awful lot of crying.
We’re talking simple and unadulterated sobbing. Good, old-fashioned, take-out-the-tissues waterworks. Sometimes, even, red-eyed, blown-nose, head-angled-from-strangers bawling.
Three of the most high-profile — and, notably, best-received — fall movies screened at the festival traded openly in sentiment. Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi-oriented “Arrival” follows Amy Adams’ linguist, encountering mysterious alien visitors as she remains haunted by the death of her daughter. It leads to an emotional wallop.
J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” finds a young boy grappling with impending grief as his mother lay dying, his bereft feelings soothed by a magical tree — and creating an equally devastating coda.
And in Garth Davis’ dislocated-child tale “Lion,” an Indian boy is separated from his family and grows up in Australia, worrying and pining for the mother and brother he left behind. The ending filled tear ducts with more liquid than a Molson glass.
These movies teased and tantalized the most primal parts of ourselves, building crescendos on feelings, about love and mortality and all the rest that really gets to us. They did so unabashedly, asking us to take out the tissues, keep them out through the credits and, if we were with more professional or unknown companions, make beelines for the bathroom to hide it all after it ended. The one phrase I’ve heard most at Toronto parties — well, besides “you really think it can get an Oscar nomination?” — was “I totally ugly-cried.” (Why no one ever beauty-cries is another matter.) Yep, the weepie is back.
Even the throwback musical “La La Land,” the most purely buoyant movie at this and many other festivals, struck its share of melancholic notes, including and especially at its end. When the lights came up, I couldn’t help noticing, for all the mid-screening applause and humming along, more than a few red eyes and runny noses. Director Damien Chazelle summed up his intentions this way: “I wanted to do a musical and ground it in real life with stuff that feels a little messier. And real life doesn’t always live up to the subjects in the movies.”
This is the part of a story where film journalists like myself would attribute this burst to a specific cultural factors — artists are reflecting on the state of the world and its inequalities so crying comes out in our films, etc. etc. But I think the reason we’re seeing a tear-jerker uptick is far simpler: a number of filmmakers have come back around to the idea that crying is a pretty potent reaction in a movie theater.
Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of the festival, gave that thought further shape. “With such a crowded media landscape, with all of us bombarded by so many distractions, I think some filmmakers are looking for something that really penetrates, that can generate an emotional impact,” he said when asked about the Toronto tear-jerkers.
Those filmmakers would be right. For all the ways we’ve come to disdain at least unearned sentiment, many people still love crying in a movie theater if the movie comes by it honestly — heck, on more than one occasion at this festival I’ve found myself talking to people who said they loved a movie simply because it made them cry. Yet oddly we don’t see those works often enough. I once asked Zach Braff, a director who’s certainly not afraid to push emotional buttons, why this was, and he said it baffled him too.
“We’re living in a very cynical world,” he said. “I love to cry in a movie. I love the feeling I have when tears are streaming down my face and I’ve just laughed. That’s my favorite experience.”
Are we at the beginning of a new era? It’s difficult to imagine that truly happening. This is, after all, hardly a full-on return to form, not compared with other times in film history. Over a 36-month span beginning in late 1979, for instance, audiences were fish-gutted by “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The Elephant Man,” “Ordinary People,” “On Golden Pond” and “Chariots of Fire,” to name just a few. The idea that we’d be entering a period, in volume or quality, to rival that one is naïve. Studios, financiers and even some filmmakers are often too worried about making people walk out of the theater sad (when they’re making dramas at all) because of a fear of what that sadness will do to their film’s word of mouth.
At the very least, many don’t want the crying to be a movie’s only notable aspect. It’s worth noting that even among the trio of TIFF tissue-pullers, only one, “Lion,” comes purely in the tradition; the others are genre pieces as much as they are dramas. (Another movie, Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama “Moonlight,” has a heartbreaking quality to it though is not explicitly a tear-jerker). “I didn’t want to do a sad film — I wanted to find the light at the end of the tunnel,” “Monster” director Bayona said in an interview about this tiptoe.
And even if filmmakers wanted to crank out these films, they would face a bigger problem: Making us cry is not as easy as it used to be. We’ve seen more such tricks in cinema and built up a resistance. We’ve also been exposed to a lot more violence and sadness in the media, which has its own hardening effect.
Still, there’s something noble about the effort. After all of these years of movie gambits, after so many different genres and so much postmodernism, the goal, and even litmus test, returns to what it was long ago: Did you walk out of the theater feeling moved to tears?
Pack the Kleenex. It’s going to be a weepie few months.
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT