North Star And Gonzo Girl Reviews: Kristin Scott Thomas And Patricia Arquette Help Open Toronto Film Festival With Impressive Directorial Debuts

It is never a normal “opening night” when it comes to the Toronto Film Festival, which is offering numerous films including the much anticipated Hayao Miyizaki film The Boy and the Heron, which is the key opening-night gala. But there are others including two exceptional directorial debuts from celebrated veteran stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Patricia Arquette making it all a very memorable kickoff for TIFF on many fronts.

In fact this is a festival this year featuring numerous premieres of films either marking the first time an actor has gone behind the camera as Thomas and Arquette have done, respectively, with Special Presentation North Star, and the Discovery Section opener Gonzo Girl, or taking their latest shot as a director. In the coming days we will also have Anna Kendrick’s Woman of the Hour; Viggo Mortensen’s sophomore feature The Dead Don’t Hurt; Ethan Hawke’s Wildcat; Chris Pine’s Poolman; Tony Goldwyn’s Ezra; Finn Wolfhard co-directing Hell of a Summer; and Michael Keaton’s directing debut Knox Goes Away. And that isn’t even a complete list.

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However, Thursday’s films by two of the best actors in the business augur well even as their fellow actors are sidelined by the SAG-AFTRA strike that is sadly keeping many of them away from Toronto this year. Both these films are for sale, and both worthy of finding a great distributor.

North Star

Kristin Scott Thomas revisits her own childhood trauma as a kickoff point for North Star, which she not only directed and wrote but also co-stars in. In real life Thomas’ own father, a Royal Navy pilot, was killed in action when she was 6. The same nearly exact thing also happened to her stepfather when she was 12. Despite that life-altering event, her mother married for a third time, and that is where her directorial debut begins.

In North Star, three daughters, now far apart around the globe, reunite for their mother’s (Thomas) latest wedding, and they prove to be quite a dysfunctional trio. There is Katherine, following in her late Dad’s footsteps as a Captain in the Royal Navy but experiencing some troubles in her own relationship with Jack (Frieda Pinto), who wants a family while Katharine pursues a military career. There is also Victoria (Sienna Miller), a movie star who blurts out her family’s tragic past on a vapid talk show appearance, and who pursues her own romantic conquests; and then there is Georgina (Emily Beecham), a palliative-care nurse who is having a hard time dealing with her unfaithful hubby Jeremy (Joshua Maguire).

They all meet up for a three-day wedding weekend at their childhood home as their mother prepares to marry husband #3, a good soul (James Fleet). Past secrets and grievances come up as they all gather, and eventually the dysfunction nearly gets the best of them. But this is not a broad comedy in any sense. Thomas is a fan of French movies, Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Little Miss Sunshine, Marriage Story and others that are smart examples of the genre. While taking on the maternal supporting role, she leaves most of the fireworks to the three daughters, and they deliver in recognizable ways you just might find at any family wedding. Ultimately though, what makes this North Star shine is its sense of love, family and humanity.

Johansson really connects here with a lovely performance. She has twice before played Thomas’ daughter (when she was 12 in The Horse Whisperer and years later in The Other Boleyn Girl), and the shorthand between them pays off. Miller is a real livewire here and completely delightful and fun to watch. Beecham is the anchor and balances perfectly off her globetrotting sisters. The men are fine too, but basically objects not meant to get in the way of the real story Thomas wants to tell. And she tells it very well indeed.

The film is poignantly dedicated in memory of Thomas’ “two fathers,” Lt Cdr Simon Thomas RN and Cdr Simon Idiens RN.

Title: North Star
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Director-screenplay: Kristin Scott Thomas
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, Emily Beecham, Thibault De Montalembert, Freida Pinto, Joshua Maguire, James Fleet
Running time: 1 hr 35 min
Sales agent: CAA

Gonzo Girl

The god of gonzo journalism Hunter S. Thompson has been portrayed in all his glory whether by name or not in such films as Where the Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary, and who knows how many other iterations inspired by the unique life force that was this legendary writer. Now, taking on the book by Cheryl Della Pietra, Patricia Arquette has found the perfect material for a lively directing debut in Gonzo Girl.

The story revolves around Pietra’s year spent as Thompson’s assistant as he was near death but working, if that is the word, on perhaps his greatest novel. At first somewhat intimidated by him but later determined to help him to finish it before it was too late, this is her story punctuated by her colorful relationship with a man who was torn between the women he was encountering in circa 1992 (there are a lot of Clinton references here) in a world of sex, love, rock ‘n roll, all things wild and uninhibited.

Arquette looks at Thompson’s story as a way into the different and frustrating and fascinating world of a writer at war with himself. Saddled with writer’s block, involved in unique ways with more than one woman, addicted to words and drugs, reeling and turning away from any form of responsibility, this fictional glimpse into Thompson’s world isn’t the surface take of some past attempts. Rather, it is a view inside this complex personality as seen through the prism of yet another pretty but determined young assistant who herself becomes a survivor, refusing to let him defeat her as she valiantly tries to unleash his greatness before he can toss it in the trash. Willem Dafoe has one of his best roles in years (a perfect match for another great role this fall in Poor Things) as Walker Reade, of course meant to evoke Thompson, and he does with a three-dimensional portrayal that feels lived in and brilliantly observed.

Still it is Camila Morrone, the actress who stole the recent Emmy-nominated limited series Daisy Jones & The Six, who manages to do the same thing here as Reade’s assistant Alley Russo. Arquette has added a fine supporting group including Ray Nicholson especially, but also Elizabeth Lail, Leila George and James Urbaniak, in addition to herself in a memorable turn as the one who has seen it all. Sean Penn even turns up in a weirdly underwritten cameo that he somehow makes work. In fact, he fits right in.

Although set in 1992, Arquette’s vision seems more in line with the ’70s style of filmmaking, particularly Robert Altman, though not always hitting the bull’s-eye here she certainly comes close enough to signal a new career behind the camera — so much that I eagerly await the next film that might interest her. For now, Gonzo Girl, with the gift of Dafoe and Morrone, is quite good enough.

Title: Gonzo Girl
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Director: Patricia Arquette
Screenwriters: Rebecca Thomas and Jessica Caldwell
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Camila Morrone, Patricia Arquette, Ray Nicholson, Elizabeth Lail, Leila George, James Urbaniak, Zoe Rose
Running time: 1 hr 47 min
Sales agents: WME and Gersh

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