TIFF Dispatch #2: Finestkind, Woman of the Hour, and American Fiction Make Their World Premiere

Another day, another grind on the festival circuit. Today wasn’t quite as bad as Day 1 considering I only screened three movies as opposed to six, which allows me some time to decompress from the festival frenzy and process a movie better. Except, one wishes the movies which filled up Day 2 had more flavor than what was given.

First up was the world premiere of writer-director Brian Helgeland’s Finestkind, one of those “Bahston” movies where the accents are inconsistent and a grizzled Tommy Lee Jones, looking and sounding like a lost puppy, seems to have more fun with the premise than the rest of the cast. It centers around a group of fishermen, headed by Ben Foster’s Tom who is later joined by his 22-year old half brother Charlie (Toby Wallace), a good kid en route to Boston Law School and is looking to stow away cash for tuition expenses. Filling out the crew is Ismeal Cruz Cordova’s Costa; Aaron Stanford’s Skeemo; and Scotty Tovar’s Nunes. They live in New Port Harbor (Habah - if you want to say it with a Boston accent) and are trying to make ends meet by plunging for scallops out at sea.

Image courtesy of Paramount+

One issue with Finestkind stems from its inability to pick a lane. Helgeland, who won the screenwriting Oscar for “LA Confidential,” spins Finestkind into fifteen different genres with some of the corniest writing you’d ever heard. At one point, someone instigates a fight and one character says: “That would be a waste of a good punch” or there’s a cringeworthy moment that will be instantly meme-able of Jones saying “I’m your daddy.” Choppy dialogue in that vein, not to mention a waterlogged romance between Charlie and Mabel (Jenna Ortega - doing the most with so little), are just some of the problems that sink this ship early.

Late in the game, Finestkind introduces so many obnoxious twists, turns, and family dynamics that give big “I’m not giving up my dream dad. I’m giving up yours” energy, you’d think this was a “Fast and Furious’ joint. I suppose that’s expected from a movie headed straight to Paramount+ in early November. It’ll pop up on your feed and then never be heard from again.

Another film destined to be studied for how much it misses the mark will be Anna Kendrick’s earnest though slight debut film Woman of the Hour, which tackles the mid to late seventies murder spree of Rodney Alcara through the lens of his appearance on The Dating Game. Kendrick occasionally shows promise as a rising filmmaker as she cuts back and forth between Alcara’s vicious killings and how he managed to schmooze on the popular game show. Kendrick also stars.

Written by Ian MacAllister McDonald, Woman of the Hour struggles with balancing the themes it explores, like how misogyny and the inability to believe victims allowed Alcara’s rampage to go on longer than anticipated. On the other hand, it also wants to be a gritty crime drama,though it never delves deep enough into the pathos of its main subject to make things intriguing (despite a better than average performance by Daniel Zovatto).

Image courtesy of VVS Films

There is one scene Kendrick manages to craft with flair, and it’s a rapid-fire sequence on the game show where her character flips the script on the host (played with a twee smile by Tony Hale) and the players. The camera zigs and zags effortlessly through the scene in real time, and it makes you wonder where that movie was instead. It’s still seeking distribution and don’t be surprised if Netflix picks it up so they can make a documentary about Alcara to go along with it. Let’s hope that it will have more context and substance than Woman of the Hour.

Last film of the day belonged to Cord Jefferson’s ingenious satire American Fiction, based on the book Erasure by Percival Everett. Jeffrey Wright gives a career best performance playing curmudgeon author/literary professor Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison. He’s fed up with the current social optics around the Black experience and loathes how pandering it’s become to white folks looking to feel good about themselves. So, he decides to take it upon himself to write a book, under a very funny pseudonym, that’s basically an amalgamation of all those cliches.

Image courtesy of MGM/Amazon

Monk, of course, writes the treatment as a joke (its characters are gangsters, have deadbeat fathers, do drugs, and get shot by the police) and publishers quickly scoop up the rights, especially since Monk’s pseudonym/alter-ego is a “fugitive” on the run. Co-starring Sterling K. Brown, in a humorous performance playing Monk’s gay brother; Adam Brody as a dimwit Hollywood executive; John Ortiz hamming it up as a literary agent who can’t wait to exploit the new book; Tracee Ellis Ross plays Monk’s sister and Erika Alexander is the love interest.

Some of the satire is probably not as sharp or pointed as the first time filmmaker would probably imagine and there’s a weird deviation subplot involving a mentally unstable family member that never earns its place, but American Fiction isn’t hiding the mark, and, for the most part, hits it in stride. MGM has it slated for release later this year.

-Nate Adams