John’s TIFF Diary: Day Six

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50/50 really spoke to me on a personal level...

There is cancer in my house, the bad kind: brain cancer.  It is incurable.  This cancer just sits, ever growing, hiding in the recesses of the brain too far down for the surgeons to cut out, waiting for the chance to erupt once again.  This one is one of the least-understood forms of cancer, so the doctors know little about it.  My wife has struggled through radiation and is now struggling through aggressive chemotherapy to treat what we have been told is a very malignant form of cancer in her brain.  We figure we could sit around and cry about our plight, but instead we choose to laugh, or, as Renton suggests in Trainspotting (1996), choose life.  What alternative is there, really?

50/50 (***) hit home with me in a very powerful way.  Admittedly, I was concerned about seeing the film.  When you are living the experience portrayed in the film, one tends to judge it in comparison to their lives.  That might be an unfair standard to place on the film, but that’s the way it is with such subject matter.  Thankfully, director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser have made an excellent, powerful and deeply moving film that permeates with the one thing we feel each and every day when all seems lost…hope.

The film contains a performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt that is altogether extraordinary and could land this wonderful young man among the nominees for Best Actor.  Though it is shaping up to be one of those tough years for actors (SO many good performances!), this one deserves to be among the top five for its honesty.  He plays Adam, a man in the prime of his life, told that he has fifty-fifty chance of survival when diagnosed with cancer.  Perhaps the only solace for Adam is his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) and a pretty young therapist learning the ropes, portrayed with intellectual perkiness by Anna Kendrick.
We watch Adam move through the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Being just 27 years-old and forced to explore his own mortality is daunting, one that far too many have had to face.  Adam eventually chooses to deal with his challenges with dignity and grace, though not without feeling sorry for himself at first.  He realizes that if he does not have much time why not live?  Really live?

Levitt is tremendously good in the film capturing the young man’s fears and torments, but also his sense of hope which finds its way to most cancer patients.  They do not see the end or the worst in their situation because they always hope to get better.  They have to hope because the alternative is unbearable.

And Seth Rogen is terrific again!  He plays Adam’s best friend Kyle, who brings a warm humor to his role, always reminding Adam he is there for him.  He stands to lose the closest friend he has ever known and is angry about that.

Kendrick is, just like in Up in the Air (2009), very good as the therapist, struggling with emotional attachment to Adam and her professional ethics, while Bryce Dallas Howard portrays Adam’s mean, cowardly girlfriend.  There is a warm and wonderful performance from the great Anjelica Huston as Adam’s mom, the fear of losing her boy etched in her face every time we see her, yet it never feels redundant.

The film was based on a true story, taken from Reiser’s memoirs, produced by Seth Rogen.  Often very funny, with twinges of heartbreak, it might be the most realistic study of how to deal with cancer.  Trust me…I know what of I speak.

Olsen deserves serious Oscar consideration.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (****) contains two of the very best performances of the year, one from a veteran character actor just becoming well-known to audiences, the other from the sister of famous twins.  Elizabeth Olsen is the eponymous character, at one time known by each name who is part of a cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes) in an electrifying performance.

**Warning: Spoilers Ahead**

Olsen has escaped a cult led by the dangerous Patrick and is struggling to assimilate back into her old life.  We encounter the girl at a farmhouse in upstate New York, where the members of the cult live in relative harmony and all seems well.  But one night she makes a break for it and runs into the woods, escaping with her life.  Struggling miserably to re-connect with her flesh-and-blood family, she longs for the days of peace and comfort with her cult family, though in the recesses of her mind she knows that what they were doing to her and all of the other women was wrong.  The bliss at the commune was at a price which included virtual slave labor, being given to the leader for sex, and eventual criminal activity.

John Hawkes, so great in HBO’s Deadwood as a gentle hardware merchant, is terrifying here, almost feral as the charismatic and menacing Patrick, who can reward his followers with love but lash out the moment he feels betrayed.  It’s an astounding piece of acting that could land Hawkes his second consecutive Oscar nomination.

Sean Durkin is a major rising talent!

In the titular role, the sister of the famous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley proves herself a major talent with a superb performance that brilliantly captures the need to be wanted and accepted  The sense of isolation she feels in the real world, with her awareness that the cult life is dangerous for her is gripping.  Trying to escape her past she finds she cannot and oddly needs the cult far more than they need her.  She may indeed love Patrick but she also fears him and for good reason.  Hawkes’ eyes blaze out of his emaciated skull like the eyes of a demon, though in a strange way he is not entirely evil, just terribly deluded and very dangerous because of it.

There have been similar films made about cult and deprogramming, one of the best being Ticket to Heaven (1981), but no one has ever tackled the subject with as much confidence as this one.

There is a building tension through Martha Marcy May Marlene as the paranoia grows throughout, superbly captured by a director not yet 30.  Sean Durkin makes it clear that he is a major new talent.  Darkly brilliant and difficult to shake.

God I love indies; they are the salvation of American cinema.