TORONTO — One of the things I enjoy doing at film festivals is finding the connections among movies on my slate. “Actors appearing in multiple films” is a good category for this game, as is “shared filming location.”
To wit, Massachusetts appeared in four of the films I’ve seen at the Toronto International Film Festival: “American Fiction,” “The Holdovers,” “Finestkind,” and “Dumb Money.” In three of these films, Boston plays a supporting role.
I discussed “Dumb Money” in my last dispatch, so let’s start with “Finestkind.” Writer-director Brian Helgeland (who co-wrote 1997′s “L.A. Confidential”) is responsible for this underwhelming tale of two brothers, Charlie (Toby Wallace) and Tom Eldridge (Ben Foster), and the fishing boat that gives the movie its title.
The boat is owned by Eldridge patriarch, Ray (Tommy Lee Jones), who sends his sons on a fishing expedition from their hometown of New Bedford. College man Charlie is destined for a life outside the family business, but he’s drawn to fisherman brother Tom’s toughness. He’s also sweet on Tom’s friend Mabel (Jenna Ortega).
What starts as a mildly interesting family drama slowly devolves into an absurd, violent drug-smuggling movie. It feels like the actors know they’re in a clunker. Ortega is the least convincing drug dealer I’ve ever seen — a drug exchange is so sloppily rendered that I thought she was the user. Wallace looks lost and has zero chemistry with Ortega; and Jones doesn’t bother to attempt a regional accent, so Helgeland has to script an excuse for the actor’s Texas drawl.
You can usually find a festival-goer who liked a movie you didn’t and is willing to argue its merits. Everybody I spoke to disliked “Finestkind” as much as I did. (As of this writing, it doesn’t have a release date.)
Faring far better is “The Holdovers,” Alexander Payne’s reunion with his “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti. Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a teacher of ancient civilization at snooty Western Massachusetts prep school Barton, where he’s stuck supervising the few students who aren’t going home for Christmas. It’s 1970, and Hunham has taught at the school for so long that the current headmaster was once one of his pupils.
Hunham also has a reputation for being the most unlikable teacher in the school, partially because he can’t hide his disdain for the overprivileged young men he teaches.
One of the holdovers is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). He’s slightly more popular with students than Hunham is, and he’s a constant thorn in the teacher’s side. Of course, the two eventually bond, especially on an extended road trip to Boston.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph gives a bittersweet performance as Mary Lamb, the school’s cook who lost her son to Vietnam soon after he graduated from Barton. She and Giamatti make a fine comic duo, each oozing a cynical weariness but for different reasons. Sessa is also quite good.
For a change, it doesn’t seem like Payne hates his characters (2013′s “Nebraska” is a good example of this directorial trait). Additionally, he scores points (at least with me) for leaning into the film’s 1970s nostalgia vibe — the movie opens with a re-creation of the era’s old blue-and-white MPAA R rating screen. I applauded when it appeared.
The best of the Boston movies at TIFF is “American Fiction,” writer-director Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.” This hilarious satire about how Black people are depicted in all forms of media would make a good double feature with Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” In fact, “American Fiction” plays like a kinder, gentler version of Lee’s caustic 2000 blackface drama.
During the introduction at the film’s world premiere here, Jefferson said he didn’t want to make a film that lectured the audience; he wanted to make us laugh and think.
Jeffrey Wright is Boston native Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, an author whose blunt teaching style alienates his Los Angeles college students. When a young white woman complains that the N-word in a Flannery O’Connor story title makes her uncomfortable, Monk snaps, “I got over it, I’m pretty sure you can, too.”
Monk has an attitude because his books, which have little to do with race, are not selling. Audiences are far more interested in Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) and her book “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.” Golden’s book is filled with hood movie stereotypes and vernacular. This is what sells to white readers, “American Fiction” posits.
As a joke, Monk writes a terrible book called “My Pafology” that mocks everything he hates about books like Golden’s. He submits it to several publishers, assuming they’ll reject it. Of course, it becomes the most sought-after manuscript for publication. And then things get worse.
It’s great to see Wright in a recent role worthy of his incredible talents. He’s surrounded by a murderer’s row of supporting actors, from Sterling K. Brown and Tracee Ellis Ross as Monk’s siblings to Erika Alexander as his love interest and the legendary Leslie Uggams as his mother. Numerous scenes are set in the Boston area. I’ll have a lot more to say when “American Fiction” debuts in theaters in November.
Word on the street is that Colman Domingo will get an Oscar nomination for his lead turn in George C. Wolfe’s worthwhile biopic, “Rustin.” Domingo gives an astonishing, often hilarious performance as Bayard Rustin, the openly gay civil rights leader who was the main architect of the 1963 March on Washington. He definitely deserves that Oscar nod.
The all-star cast features Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, CCH Pounder, and Audra McDonald, all of whom turn in fine work.
In the “actors appearing in multiple films” category: Wright also costars, though not as Dr. King (he played that role in 2001′s “Boycott”). Here, he’s Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Randolph likewise appears here in a cameo I won’t spoil. Those festival movie connections and coincidences just keep on coming!
In my final dispatch, I’ll cover the documentaries I saw, as well as some crowd-pleasers. I’ll also discuss “The Boy and the Heron,” the latest film by master animator Hayao Miyazaki (2001′s “Spirited Away”, 1988′s “My Neighbor Totoro”). Until this movie, I’ve never wanted a parakeet before. Wait until you find out why.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.