Linda Holmes is filing dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival. These movies will see wider release in the coming months.
Holly Hunter is a national treasure; let's get that out of the way now. She is incredibly skilled, but she's also just fun to watch. In Strange Weather, Hunter plays Darcy, a woman who's been grieving her grown son's suicide for seven years when she discovers that one of his old buddies ripped off a business idea he'd once had. Accompanied by her best friend Byrd (Carrie Coon, who is also a fabulous actress), Darcy jumps in her truck and goes off to confront this man she believes has stolen from her son.
It's effectively an odyssey movie and a road-trip buddy movie, crossed with a story about grief and friendship. As in most similar movies, the trip is not really about what it is supposedly about, this mission of confrontation. Writer-director Katherine Dieckmann doesn't necessarily have a lot of entirely new things to say about loss and how it doubles people over until they can't walk, but she has a solid ear for writing dialogue with an understanding of how conversations about pain really sound and how friends really talk to each other.
Manchester By The Sea
One of the most important qualities of this stunning drama from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) is patience. When we first meet Lee (Casey Affleck), he's a caustic Boston handyman in trouble for arguing with the tenants. He's shaken by a phone call revealing that his brother has died, and the film begins to integrate Lee's recollections of his brother (Kyle Chandler), whose diagnosis with congestive heart failure several years earlier finished off his marriage and left him as effectively the single father of what is now a teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee returns to Manchester, where he once lived, to bury his brother and take whatever responsibility he can for his nephew.
Rather than being neatly organized around flashbacks, Manchester By The Sea restlessly moves between images of the past and present, beginning gingerly at first to explore Lee's own past in Manchester with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and their three young children, and how he came to be all alone in Boston, broken and angry.
While it's almost unbearably sad in some places, Manchester By The Sea is sharply funny in others. Affleck and Hedges have a knock-around chemistry based on interlocking senses of humor that call on family bonds but also their shared experiences with loss. For much of the film, it's easy to wonder why an actress of Michelle Williams' caliber took a role of fairly limited scope, and then she and Affleck play a scene together that is so complex and so perfectly devastating that it alone could win them both any award you care to name. It leads to no neat resolution — again, patience — but it is achingly compassionate and impeccably written and acted in every moment.
A word of advice: Learn as little about the plot beyond these basics as you can. I went into it largely cold, and the way the story gradually gives way is a choice you're better off honoring. Affleck is absolutely extraordinary in it, though, and if he's not around in every awards discussion in the spring, something will have gone terribly wrong.
Abacus: Small Enough To Jail
Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interruptors, Life Itself) tells the story of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the only bank that's been indicted for mortgage fraud following the 2008 financial crisis. Is Abacus a huge international powerhouse? No, it's a family-owned bank in New York's Chinatown with six branches, set up to serve the community.
As James tells the story, Abacus discovered in 2009 that a couple of its employees were indeed engaged in deceptive practices (essentially cooking up phony documentation to support the approval of mortgages), and it fired the bad actors and went directly to its regulators to report what had happened. But in the post-financial-crisis environment, the Manhattan District Attorney decided to make an example of the bank and, in 2012 after a lengthy investigation, indicted not only managers it argued must have known about the fraud, but also the bank itself, having concluded that the managers were highly placed enough that the corporation could be held responsible.
While this could be framed as simply an argument against the choice to prosecute a small family-owned bank that serves an immigrant community while not prosecuting any of the giant banks that actually created mortgage defaults (Abacus had an extraordinarily low default rate), James does more than that with the story. As he follows the criminal trial, he spends a lot of time with the bank's founder, Thomas Sung, and his adult daughters, several of whom are running the bank by the time the case begins. Sung explains how communities that run on cash sometimes stay out of the banking system and how poorly served they were by the banks he saw trying to get the business of Chinatown residents in the '80s, prior to when he started Abacus. His daughters are no-nonsense lawyers who believe they did everything right in rooting out the bad actors in their own bank and have no intention of pleading guilty to anything.
So ultimately, it's a story about family and about the specifics of trying to provide financial services to populations with particular needs, in addition to being a full-throated argument that the District Attorney's office was foolish to pour its resources into this case against a small bank that wasn't actually costing anybody money. James is an advocacy documentarian; while he interviews both the DA at the time, Cyrus Vance, and one of the trial prosecutors, he doesn't hide his disdain for their decisions. This one may make you mad.