As the preeminent gathering for upscale fall cinema, the Toronto International Film Festival prides itself on relevance and social consciousness.
But few editions in the 42-year history of the festival will compare to this one.
The combination of high-profile movies about urgent topics and the feeling of urgency in the world at large is set to give the annual September rite an unprecedented electricity.
When it begins Thursday night with a story of international rivalry and cult-of-hothead-personality (tennis drama “Borg/McEnroe” with Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe) — and continues over the following 10 days with movies about race, environmentalism, globalism, feminism and politics — TIFF will engage with the current moment as few cultural events do.
In the process, the gathering will provide an artistic response and even collective therapy to the roil emanating from Washington, D.C. — all while offering a glimpse at how the country might debate issues and seek solace at movie theaters in the months to come.
“Our job is to try to rip down walls and start conversations, and this year’s festival reflects that,” said TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey just days before the controversy over DACA boiled over in the U.S. “What TIFF is here to say is that the forces trying to build walls are not going to win.”
Bailey and other festival executives say they don’t explicitly privilege movies about current affairs or identity politics. Yet charged social topics percolate through many of the fest’s North American premieres just the same as the films play in the Canadian metropolis ahead of what is typically a major commercial rollout in the U.S by the end of the year.
David Gordon Green’s Boston Marathon-bombing drama “Stronger,” for instance, examines the nature of patriotism and heroism, subtly asking what it means to cheer on America at a time of crisis.
In “Disobedience,” the Argentine-Chilean director Sebastian Lelio investigates LGBTQ repression via a lesbian drama, starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, set in the Orthodox Jewish world.
Topical ideas ripple under “Mother!” an ostensible horror movie that’s really a larger parable of environmental catastrophe (among other things) from the “Black Swan” and “Noah” auteur Darren Aronofsky.
And hot-button issues take center stage with “Mary Shelley,” a movie about the taboo-breaking feminist author directed by Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa al-Mansour, a taboo-breaking feminist director.
At a time when some want to take us backward, I think we need stories of liberal values that people can see a reflection of themselves in.
“I understood deeply where Mary Shelley comes from — a young woman trying to be an artist and break away from a conservative world,” Al-Mansour said of the film, which stars Elle Fanning in the title role. “It’s very relevant because at a time when some want to take us backward, I think we need stories of liberal values that people can see a reflection of themselves in.”
“Shelley” is one of many movies directed by women at TIFF, which organizers say for the first time ever counts more than one-third of its directors as female. (The slate, it should be noted, is also slimmed this year by about 15% as programmers try to give the sprawling event a slightly more manageable feel.)
Some other notable films from female directors include the Telluride breakout “Lady Bird” by Greta Gerwig, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie about women and female familial relationships; Brie Larson’s magical realist directorial debut “Unicorn Store”; and “Battle of the Sexes,” a chronicling of the run-up to the landmark 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, directed by Valerie Faris and her husband, Jonathan Dayton.
A number of movies helmed solely by men are also tackling feminist themes, as with Lelio’s “Disobedience,” or Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game,” in which the Oscar-winning screenwriter makes his directorial debut with a poker-world drama centered on real-life competitor Molly Bloom, played by Jessica Chastain.
Documentaries will also confront newsy issues — sometimes head-on, sometimes with more nuance.
In “The Final Year,” Greg Barker offers an inside look at the Obama administration and its foreign-policy team in the last 12 months of his presidency. Barker opted to bring the film to Toronto instead of his go-to venue of Sundance so it could be seen right away.
The movie follows the 44th president and a team that includes former Secretary of State John Kerry, ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and senior strategist Ben Rhodes in the West Wing and around the world as they apply their brand of engaged globalism on issues ranging from climate change to Syria. To many, the scenes will conjure mental comparisons to Donald Trump even before he makes a brief appearance as president-elect late in the film.
“Someone asked me right after election day, ‘How does this affect your movie?’ ” Barker said. “And I told them, ‘I think it just got more important.’ I don’t mean that politically,” he added. “I just mean that it shows a certain worldview at a time when it’s being questioned more than ever."
Docs such as Brett Morgen’s Jane,” about the conservationist Jane Goodall, will continue the festival’s long history of environmentally relevant films, only now with more edge, given current fears about deregulation and the abdication of the Paris agreement.
And Jason Kohn’s tennis documentary “Love Means Zero,” focusing on the brash, victory-at-all-costs tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, offers some implicit parallels to the current White House occupant.
“I know every movie can be seen as an allegory for Trump,” said Kohn. “But I think that’s really the big theme in the movie and in our country right now: At what price winning?”
The explicitness of many directors on this subject represents a shift from just a few years ago, when many were loath to publicly acknowledge political elements in their work for fear of dividing prospective audiences. But with America already divided, they say, there’s no reason to hold back.
“What I see as the big topic in so many of these movies is survival,” said Piers Handling, TIFF’s director and chief executive. “People trying to survive challenges, trying to survive disaster, trying to survive terrorist attacks. I think they underscore what a lot of us are worried about, which is what the future will look like and what place we’ll have in it.”
Of course, the challenge with films coming out in a time of crisis is that moviegoers may be too swept up in the actual crises to notice the films. Some movies are already seeking to locate themselves within that context to avoid being overlooked. “Suburbicon,” a George Clooney-directed ’50s-era period piece that touches on very real issues of integration within a borderline surreal dark comedy, recently saw filmmakers conduct an interview in a Hollywood trade that positioned the film as a post-Charlottesville movie of the moment.
Also an open question is how much Oscar voters will reward these films with nominations, an implicit goal for nearly every major Toronto debut. If the past few years are any indication, Toronto movies that center on the afflicted and the silenced will go on to awards acclaim — “Moonlight,” “Spotlight” and “12 Years a Slave” all went on to win Oscar’s best picture after playing Toronto. While some voters may seek a respite from harsh realities in award-season films, the Donald Trump era could, on balance, reinforce Hollywood folks’ desire to reward movies that contain political undercurrents.
Directors say that while such recognition is welcome, it’s not necessarily the point of this crop of movies. Merely screening certain films at this moment, they say, can have a galvanizing effect — or a palliative one.
“People are exhausted by the flood of news, which is relentless and numbs the mind,” “The Final Year’s” Barker said. “I think what we can do as filmmakers at a place like Toronto is take a step back and evaluate the emotional mood of our country, then reflect that back. These are extraordinary times, and we need to find new ways to make sense of them.”