This is the first in a twelve part series called The Post-TIFF, where I review one of the twelve movies that I screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Check back every week for a new Post-TIFF review and recap of a screening.
Jason Reitman’s latest directorial effort, Men, Women and Children, lacks a clear thesis on society’s relationship with technology. Technology connects us. It disconnects us. We are empowered with it. We are weakened by it. It’s good. It’s bad.
The mix of contradictions, controversies and benefits twist into a narrative that aims to take a snap shot of what the state of affairs are like today. While the cases, spread out across four families living in a small Texas town, are certainly compelling, they also uphold many pitfalls typical to a film with a large ensemble cast: too many subplots, too many attempts to tackle complex issues, limited character development and in a few instances, unsatisfying conclusions. As a result, Men, Women and Children more often feels like a series of short stories loosely weaved into one another than one with a singular or overarching plot, but its strong performances, realistic scenarios and Reitman’s ability to tap into the human side of our technological landscape make it a fairly thought-provoking exploration of its various intersections that is enjoyable, easy to identify with and for some, a wake-up call.
I cannot comment on how much this film draws from its source material (a novel of the same name by Chad Kultgen); I have not read it. I am curious as to whether it is as jam packed as Reitman’s realization, which not only tackles the implications of technology through its plots, but also maximizes opportunities to do so through the visual components of the film. Whether that means using digital speech bubbles (think iMessage or Facebook chat boxes) in place of dialogue and having cast members awkwardly navigate such interactions, showcasing an employee set up a dating profile during office hours or simply a couple staring at their tablets while they play Words With Friends sitting next to one another, Reitman rarely had a scene without it being infiltrated by technology in some way or another. The mere fact that they never feel very overwhelming and all-too-familiar is pretty telling, but it is difficult to fully get on board with the examples when the implications bounce between so many areas on the spectrum that they are blurred and, well, excessive.
The humanized component of the story falls on the shoulders of the film’s very strong cast, which boasts the likes of Dean Norris, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort and Rosemarie DeWitt. The only severely underused actor is J.K. Simmons, who is a parent to one of the children featured in the film, but has very little presence in the story. Viewers may be a little appalled by Garner’s character’s extreme ways when it comes to safeguarding her child’s technological interactions, but the success of her representation, alongside Dean Norris’ recently divorced and suddenly single parent Kent Mooney, and Judy Greer’s Momager Joan Clint is a critical nod towards the role of education and trust in parenting today. Norris, Greer and surprisingly Sandler all manage to convey the moral dilemmas and dramatic climaxes in the third act particularly well.
Reitman really ghosts around a lot of issues by setting up similar storylines for the parents. It becomes difficult to become truly invested in a lot of them. However, the subplots involving the children have the largest impact on the audience . The relationship between Tim Mooney (Elgort) and Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12) manages to evolve quite organically and brings about a very real connection that the audience can cling to over the course of the two hour film, mainly due to the actors’ credit. Newcomer Elena Kampouris plays Tim and Brandy’s peer who suffers from body image issues and eating disorder that emerged amidst high school and digital pressures. It is alarming at how prominent these issues still are and Kampouris’ portrayal of this particular tale is as heartbreaking as ever. These, combined with the flirtatious and relationship difficulties between football player Chris Truby (Travis Trope) and cheerleader Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia), demonstrate one major sticking point for future generations: things are not going to get any easier for them.
If it were not for the younger characters, there would not be much to take away from Men, Women and Children. While it isn’t going to lull you to sleep (though Bibio’s hypnotic and subtly infectious score may in a different setting), the depth Reitman aims for is too muddled to go too far, and any ideas he hopes to impart will probably remain behind at the theatre. But hey, at least the aesthetics are nice – which is something I’m sure a lot of you have said to yourselves when buying your devices.
I attended a screening of Men, Women and Children during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Men, Women and Children will have a limited release on October 3rd and will have its wide-release on October 17th by Paramount Pictures.