The eighth annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival kicked off its run at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre with its highly regarded opening gala. While each film at the festival is special in its own way, this initial spot is saved for a film that’s going to set the bar high.
This year, that film was Jim Mickle’s quietly disturbing We Are What We Are. After that was Henry Saine’s rambunctious Mad Max mash up Bounty Killer.
I was able to catch We Are What We Are and the Canadian short film KIN that preceded the feature. However, after festival director Adam Lopez’s charismatic rundown to the crowd, the screening began with a special message from Z-grade filmmaker Uwe Boll. Boll, a past entrant of TAD, explained his disappointment in the festival for not being asked back to screen one of his “masterworks”.
His request for the future: unlimited first class privileges and acceptance into the genre-heavy fest. Although Boll has stunned audiences in the past with his arrogance and his schlocky action horrors, it was very cool to see the infamous filmmaker poke fun at his alienation and bad reputation.
After a preview for Bounty Killer, which appropriately pumped up the packed house, KIN started.
KIN (DIR. Ben McKinnon & Seb McKinnon)
KIN is hard to take in as a typical short film with a concise three-act layout. It’s easier to digest if you absorb Ben McKinnon and Seb McKinnon’s work as an artistically well made music video full of surreal imagery.
At face value, KIN is expertly produced. It’s highly attractive, blending reality with a misty dreamscape, but definitely falls into that camp of music videos that insist that everything in slow motion is more poetic and pretty.
A lot of the story in KIN is as hazy as its colour scheme. Trying to comprehend the narrative feels like waking up from a head rush, but we feel more than willing to let this gorgeous short wash over us.
Audiences are given the tricky task of trying to piece together what the film is saying overall. Although in the end, moviegoers see that the McKinnons had a plan all along. It doesn’t feel like an ambiguous opportunity was pulled away from eager solvers. We can’t help but be impressed by these dicey directors who are not afraid to take risks with their filmmaking. Even if the end product is a wee bit convoluted.
Though KIN is calling for multiple viewings, you can accept it with one watch as a technically awe-inspiring work that offers plenty of eye candy. If you care to dig deeper, I’m sure you’ll find even more meaning amongst Ben and Seb McKinnon’s storytelling.
We Are What We Are (DIR. Jim Mickle)
Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are shows a hauntingly humanistic portrayal of something that’s downright unfathomable: cannibalism.
The Parkers are a pale and sickly family who keep to themselves, even through a traumatic death that alters perspectives.
When their mother abruptly suffers a fatal shock to the system, Rose and eldest sister Iris (played by Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers) feel the shift in hierarchy as their father Frank (played by Bill Sage, who shows shades of Jack Torrence under the grumbled intimidation) introduces his daughters to their family secret even more.
The film can be described as a coming-of-age story purely by the arc Garner and Childers travel. They’re emotionless and detached from all reality around them, but their innocence comes crashing down even further as they see first-hand the difference between life, death, and the murder that inevitably becomes their supper.
We Are What We Are is extremely atmospheric and nails each tone right out of the gate. As Mickle begins on a washed-out, soggy rainy backdrop, audiences immediately feel that sense of being cornered in with no where to go – much like that removal the Parkers painlessly feel day to day.
From there, Mickle has us pulled into his loose adaptation of Jorge Michel Grau’s original work and the gripping filmmaker never lets go, nor do we want to depart at any moment.
Garner and Childers develop a convincing sibling relationship and give great performances, effectively showing how their tolerance for family rituals are wearing thin. Sage is a knock-out as a staggering leader who holds traditions close and lets his short temper grow. And you can’t forget about character actor Michael Parks’ harrowing role as a skeptical father looking for his lost daughter.
We Are What We Are’s slow burn builds to a white-knuckle suspenseful final act. Even if you think you can call the events that unfold, the surprising and shocking ending will leave you speechless.
It’s also good to note that Mickle (who also co-wrote the screenplay with actor Nick Damici) knows how and when to utilize graphic images. A lot of grisly details in Mickle’s horror/thriller is left to the viewers’ imagination to elaborate. But when the bloody gloves are off, Mickle represents these moments in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative or catering to a certain gore-hound crowd.
It’s easy to see how some horror aficionados will compare this to Let The Right One In because of the ominous tones and lead characters that will have you cringing but caring. We Are What We Are is in a league of its own though when it comes to standing its ground, but a definite similarity both films share is that they’re both excellent.
For more information on Toronto After Dark, the other films that will be screening, and purchasing tickets, click here!
Read my anticipated Toronto After Dark picks here!
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