Cruel Stories of Youth

Despite its vast scale and ever-ascendant international profile, the Toronto International Film Festival (held this year from September 9 to 18) has continued to be a remarkably mellow, user-friendly event, unsullied by elitism and hosted in a big city that's rather miraculously clean and friendly. So why's a nice festival like Toronto hanging out with all these pedophiles? Child abusers seemed to lurk in every corner in 2004: In Todd Solondz's Palindromes, a shlubby creep attempts to oblige a young girl's consuming desire to become a mother; in Asia Argento's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, a kid is sexually assaulted by not one but two of his hopeless mother's boyfriends; and in Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin, a pair of small-town teenagers remain forever linked by their childhood encounter with a predatory baseball coach.

In Solondz's latest atrocity, the parents of a pubescent girl, Aviva, force her to have an abortion, after which she escapes into the warm embrace of Mama Sunshine, who runs an orphanage-cum-Bible camp for disabled kids. The big gimmick: Eight different actors portray Aviva, including four girls, a 12-year-old boy, and Jennifer Jason Leigh(!). The rotating cast may be intended to indicate the universality of Aviva's desires--for love, physical affection, creation--but the conceit ensures that she's little more than a wheedling cipher, the hollow center of Solondz's usual self-satisfied cacophony of sentimentality and snide contempt.

Tough-minded, grown-up films about child abuse were forthcoming, however, from Argento and Araki. In Heart Is Deceitful, her gorgeously photographed adaptation of the J.T. Leroy novel, Argento sometimes reaches Ratcatcher-like heights in envisioning child's-eye dreams and nightmares and contributes a note-perfect performance as the miserable, monstrous, and--in her own sick way--loving mother. Araki's return to form, Mysterious Skin, deftly crosscuts two boyhoods--one leading to life as a hustler, the other fixated on UFO lore--in order to loop back to the trauma that defined them both, culminating in a final scene that's both startlingly cathartic and bravely unresolved.

A child in peril also haunts Lodge Kerrigan's hypnotic, handheld Keane. Kerrigan evokes the Dardenne brothers' work in sticking as closely as possible to the schizophrenic title character, who forges a fraught bond with a little girl and her mother while he searches desperately for his own missing daughter. British actor Damian Lewis, who's in nearly every frame of the film, inhabits the tormented Keane with bracing abandon, and, as Argento does in Heart Is Deceitful, Kerrigan subtly infers a prematurely self-sufficient child's ability to sympathize with a damaged adult.

The Yorkshire teenagers in Pawel Pawlikowski's exquisite My Summer of Love hover in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood: Tamsin, a posh troublemaker home from boarding school, develops a near-symbiotic friendship with local girl Mona, who lives with her brother above a pub that he's busy transforming into a "spiritual center." Working with verdant, near-pointillist imagery, Pawlikowski edges toward genre traps but always backs slyly away from them, and guides career-making performances by Nathalie Press (a dead ringer for the young Tilda Swinton) and Emily Blunt.

A few festival darlings made disappointing appearances. The limp portmanteau Eros found Wong Kar-wai, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Steven Soderbergh spinning their wheels, while Claire Denis's L'Intrus pushes the director's proclivity for narrative elision and ambiguity to an unwelcome extreme, placing Michel Subor in the midst of an overpopulated tangle of organ-trade intrigues, barking dogs, and Beatrice Dalle.

Far more heartening was the latest from Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke (Unknown Pleasures), who in The World explores life, love, and death among employees at a vast global-replica theme park (slogan: "See the world without ever leaving Beijing"). Jia's fourth feature marks his first successful collaboration with the Chinese government, and the result does bear some telltale imprints--notably a more conventional storytelling grammar and a musical soundtrack. But his mastery of the long take remains wholly intact, and The World may yet prove to be a readily accessible entry point for newcomers to a brilliant director who is, as yet, too often overlooked.