September 18, 2023

Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Rustin,” “Memory” & “Fingernails”


RUSTIN (Netflix – Nov. 17):  The director and producer George C. Wolfe is a towering figure in American theater, but his films to date have been wobbly at worst (A Night in Rodanthe, You’re Not You) and sturdy at best (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).  Rustin marks his most accomplished work yet, a vivid snapshot of a crucial few months in the life of civil rights giant Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo).  The smart, well-structured script by Justin Breece and Dustin Lance Black limits itself almost entirely to Rustin’s role as the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.  That event is mostly remembered today for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, but Rustin serves as a reminder that it was the single largest gathering of protesters, let alone civil rights advocates, in DC history at that time.  The script delves into the minutiae of organizing such a massive event, and in doing so it provides a microcosm of the civil rights movement as a whole, and even of political activism in general.  Rustin himself was an extraordinary figure to be so prominent in that era as a barely closeted gay man, especially since the civil rights movement was so closely linked with Christian ministries.  Rustin details the constant struggles this caused, and the way that his private life became fodder for political infighting not just from opponents of civil rights but within the movement itself.  In the title role, Domingo gives the performance of his career, brilliant, conflicted and charismatic, and no doubt his name will be part of the awards discourse this year.  Wolfe has surrounded him with a terrific supporting cast, including appearances by Jeffrey Wright (superb as Rustin’s foe Adam Clayton Powell), Chris Rock, Audra McDonald, Glynn Turman, Ami Ameen (as King), and CCH Pounder.  The production design by Mark Ricker, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, and cinematography by Tobias Schliesser establish the period without fetishizing the details, and there’s an exceptional score by Branford Marsalis.  Rustin had only weeks to put together the entire March, and Wolfe worked with editor Andrew Mondshein to convey the constant daunting, exhilarating rush of the process.  Rustin is informative, provocative and somehow not self-serious, a winning swing at an important piece of American history.

MEMORY (no distrib):  The writer/director Michel Franco in a more humanist mode than his deliberately inciting New Order and Sundown.  Franco’s track record makes us fear the worst, as does NY social worker Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), at the story’s deliberately unsettling start, as she reluctantly attends her high school reunion, only to find herself followed home on the subway by Saul (Peter Sarsgaard).  He doesn’t attempt to accost her, but goes to sleep on the cold sidewalk outside her house.  Sylvia discovers that Saul has early onset dementia, but while she feels compassion for him, she also believes he was involved in a traumatic incident from their high school years–only to find out from her sister (Merritt Wever) that this couldn’t have been the case.  Memory is about the shifting, discomforting effects of our pasts and the way we internalize them.  Because of the events of her childhood, and her subsequent alcoholism, Sylvia lives a rigidly controlled life, and causes her teen daughter Sara (Elsie Fisher) to do the same.  Saul’s knowledge about the most basic facts of his own life is in perpetual flux.  Even as Sylvia struggles with her family and her secrets, she finds herself opening to Saul, whose window of consciousness is in the process of shutting down.  Memory is sometimes more elliptical than one would like, but it provides the occasion for a pair of remarkable acting turns.  As Sylvia, Chastain gives one of her strongest naturalistic performances, stripped down from her recent more elaborate roles like The Eyes of Tammy Faye and George and Tammy.  Sarsgaard does sensitive work as a man uncertain of his very identity.  While Memory presents its issues more than it fully grapples with them, it sticks in the mind.

FINGERNAILS (no distrib):  One would like to give Christos Nikou (with his co-writers Stavros Raptis and Sam Steiner) credit at least for originality, but their intricate soft sci-fi allegory for the proposition that determining true love according to an algorithm isn’t a great idea is almost the same as the premise of the 2020 AMC series Soulmates.  Nikou and his colleagues have added the bizarre detail that in order to test one’s love, both members of a couple need to have a fingernail ripped off and placed in a microwave-like device, for whatever that’s worth.  The setting is the usual near future, and Anna (Jessie Buckley) is distressed by the increasing sense that although she and her boyfriend Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) have been tested and certified as truly in love, she’s not really feeling it.  In the hope of learning more about how the system works, she takes a job at the testing facility, where she’s partnered with Amir (Riz Ahmed).  With him, she trains couples in bonding exercises (dancing, rescue from mock disasters) designed to maximize their chances of passing the test.  Anna is even more confused when she finds herself having feelings for Amir.  The mild body horror of the test aside, Fingernails is dreary stuff that doesn’t have many surprises on its route to a fairly obvious conclusion, and it’s some kind of a negative accomplishment for Nikou, here making his English-language debut, that he’s managed to dampen the appeal of Buckley, Ahmed and White, three of the most compelling actors around.  The filmmaking is, one assumes, deliberately plain and even slightly retro, with no cell phones to be seen and nothing futuristic beyond the low-tech test itself.  Fingernails must have seemed a lot more provocative to everyone involved than it actually is.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."