It was fitting that the 47th Toronto International Film Festival opened with a survival story.
The Swimmers, director Sally El Hosaini’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama about Yusra and Sara Mardini, two Syrian sisters who swam to freedom (and then, one of them, on to the Olympics), was an opening-night selection whose themes dovetailed nicely and neatly with TIFF’s big comeback year. The world throws obstacles our way every day, but the determined among us refuse to accept defeat. Cue the typically warm and polite (but rarely ecstatic) Toronto applause.
Regrettably, there are more interesting things to say about the why The Swimmers was selected for the festival’s big welcome-back party than anything about the film itself, which rather quickly proves itself to be a highly conventional underdog story with sociopolitical ambitions it never meets head-on. The crude pitch: Think last year’s refugee documentary Flee meets the father-knows-best sports biopic King Richard, but with too little narrative discipline or aesthetic imagination.
My eyes weren’t completely dry. I’m not a monster, after all, and the film’s end credits detailing the chaos that refugees face globally will shatter the most hardened critic. And, yes, it was a nice coup on the part of TIFF organizers to bring the real-life Mardini sisters onstage for a quick wave (though regrettably not a potentially fascinating Q&A, at least not at the 6 p.m. Princess of Wales screening I attended).
But it will be the company behind the movie that will ultimately make headlines at the festival. As one of nine Netflix productions playing TIFF, The Swimmers represents the latest conquer-all-festivals stake in the ground for the streaming giant.
The film’s opening-night selection also seems to be the payoff of a double-sided favour. Netflix gets to open a big splashy festival not particularly known to be discerning with opening-night selections – but any publicity for a title that’s until now gone relatively under the fall season radar is good publicity, right? Meanwhile, TIFF gets to further build its relationship to the all-important streamer while delivering just the kind of crowd-pleasing heart-warmer that has increasingly become its specialty.
Perhaps I should’ve taken the cue of practically every other critic on my social-media timeline and instead headed a few doors down to the Royal Alexandra Theatre to see the hot new A24 drama The Inspection, which is already getting cautious Moonlight comparisons. But in terms of TIFF kickoff films, The Swimmers was no Dear Evan Hansen. And for that we can all be thankful to have survived another opening night.
Speaking of The Inspection: That inescapable fear of missing out – let’s call it TIF-FOMO – drenched most of the festival’s opening day, at least on my end. From a morning spent attending a secret screening that was located right next to another, even more secret screening (if they’re confiscating phones at the door, it’s got to be good, right?) to haphazardly wandering down King, er, Festival Street hoping to figure out my next best destination, TIFF seems right back in prepandemic “too many choices” mode.
Already, there always seems to be the promise of a better movie, a better party, a better opportunity, around the corner. It is a unique sort of cry-me-a-river anxiety that I think the city honestly missed during the past two hybrid TIFFs.
Whether the industry end of TIFF will similarly make up for lost time is more difficult to say right now. But already on Day One, deals were being done. The most exciting of which involves the sale of U.S. rights to IFC Films for BlackBerry, the new movie from Canadian filmmaker/troublemaker Matt Johnson (The Dirties, Operation Avalanche) that chronicles the rise and fall of Research In Motion. Already set for distribution in Canada with Elevation Pictures, the picture is planning a theatrical release next year, and should make waves both at home and abroad.
It was a good-news headline that just barely overshadowed some not-so-nice ones, the first involving a $10-million lawsuit filed against Drake and other producers of the TIFF hockey documentary Black Ice, the second focusing on the quiet cancellation of TIFF screenings for the drama Sparta, after that film’s Austrian director Ulrich Seidl was last week accused of child exploitation detailed in a Der Spiegel expose.
Not even the death of Queen Elizabeth II seemed to make a real dent in TIFF’s welcome-back party. After warmly, briefly acknowledging the Queen’s passing ahead of The Swimmers’ premiere, festival CEO Cameron Bailey moved things along to the show at hand. Keep calm, and carry on.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.