Two New Stars in Toronto: Baby Ruby and Bruiser
Two feature-film directing stars caught my attention at the Toronto Film Festival. Both were in contention for the FIPRESCI award. Both dealt with sensitive topics.
Actress and playwright Bess Wohl utilized the language of cinema (with the help of horror elements) to investigate postpartum depression, already addressed in recent productions such as the dramatic comedy Tully, the drama Deep Breath, and the adaptation The Lost Daughter, in addition to inspiration from Rosemary’s Baby. Wohl’s justification for creating this work for cinema is that live theater is incompatible with babies, as well as the fact that cinema has more tools to explore the depths of the protagonist, Jo, played by Noémie Merlant (from Portrait of a Lady on Fire).
Jo is a digital influencer, days away from giving birth to daughter Ruby. After the birth, she realizes that the baby is strangely hostile and violent; in addition, she can’t count on the participation of her husband, the gourmet butcher Spencer (Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington). He is absent from most of the narrative, while Jo fantasizes that her mother-in-law, Doris (Jayne Atkinson), or a group of mothers led by Shelley (Meredith Hagner), have macabre plans for the child. As the narrative conveys, with the language of horror—standing on the edge between the real and the fantastic—the viewer must decide whether Jo’s visions are delusions resulting from emotional stress or threats from outsiders trying to take Ruby for themselves (if they haven’t already).
At one point, a baby bumps against the car; in another, the dog eats a piece of meat that Jo assumes is Ruby. This walk on the tightrope of reason is the kind of emotional commitment I like in horror movies, a kind of Schrödinger narrative that admits valid and simultaneous interpretations, depending on how the spectator prefers reality to fantasy, or vice versa.
Bess Wohl has the ability to face the mosaic of factual and surreal images, with a mastery of cinematic form in creating images that dialogue with the spectator. During Jo and Spencer’s visit to the pediatrician’s office, Wohl waits until the very last moment to reveal Ruby in the frame, hiding her the way mothers do with their children in a stroller. At another moment, Spencer and her mother chat while ignoring Jo, who has to get up to get into the frame (synonymous with being noticed). Not to mention Wohl’s creative moves with the image, multiplying and fragmenting Jo in front of three windows, or literally transforming her into a monster.
Kit Harington has no problem playing Spencer, the average kind of husband, helpful and considerate only when he’s around, which is to say almost never. Jayne Atkinson is enigmatic in hiding her real intentions from Jo’s eyes. Noémie Merlant, in her first English-language role, remains introspective, an intriguing decision when it comes to a digital influencer, resorting only to excesses when the narrative demands it at the climax.
Part of a set of feminist horrors, in which the question of women is seen through the language of horror, Baby Ruby is a study in how the most controlling of people lose control over their own lives after the birth of a daughter. It is horror about the woman’s depersonalization in becoming a mother and the loss of the self and the desperate attempt to regain it alone, without any support network, in a skilled debut from Bess Wohl.
Director Miles Warren’s feature directorial debut, whose style and atmosphere evokes Barry Jenkins’ cinema from Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, was among the selection of films we considered for the FIPRESCI Jury, and is my favorite. From a structure arranged around the teenager Darious, Miles analyzes the masculinity theme of Jenkins’ Oscar winner, but from the angle of violence, developing the idea contained in a short of the same title released the previous year.
Darious, played by Jalyn Hall, attends an upscale boarding school and returns to his parents’ house for a vacation. Despite the affection of Monica (Shinelle Azoroh), the mother, and the efforts of Malcolm (Shamier Anderson), the stepfather, who negotiates the scholarship to keep him in school, Darious does not feel that he belongs in that world. To make matters worse, in addition to having his calls rejected by his girlfriend, a young man from the neighborhood beats him mercilessly. Darious becomes more introspective, until he meets Porter (Trevante Rhodes), who turns out to be his biological father. His relationship with Porter is not accepted by Monica and, above all, by Malcolm, and both male figures will fight emotional and physical war over the protagonist.
Many elements of Moonlight are successfully woven into the fabric of the narrative: Robert Ouyang Rusli’s soundtrack recalls the meditative atmosphere of the one composed by Nicholas Britell; cinematographer Justin Derry’s close-up shots explore the soul and feelings of characters as James Laxton provided for the Oscar-winner; James LeSage’s editing, on the other hand, evokes the inner turmoil of the young protagonist with identical contemplative rhythm and detachment in a realistic cinematographic way, as if we were in the world of perceptions and feelings, not only of facts.
Meanwhile, Miles Warren scans the narrative within the 4:3 aspect ratio, which compresses and smothers Darious on the claustrophobic journey of figuring out which man he wants to mature into. The aspect ratio makes it difficult for the characters to interact in the frame, so that in most shots, the characters are seen alone, yearning for contact that doesn’t seem possible in the tight cinematic frame. And, when the space is occupied by more than one person, the contact doesn’t seem to be authentic in most cases, like the invitation for Darious to come and give the family a hug. It is not an action that starts from his desire, but from the summons, to which he owes obedience.
Through its formal aspects, Bruiser suggests a promising future for Miles Warren. At one point, Malcolm is plunged into the darkness of his lies, photographed in dim lighting that barely sketches the outline of his face. At another, two men fight in a field, illuminated intermittently by a red light that animalizes them. By the way, the color red is present within a sepia autumnal photograph as a symbol in contrast to a Bruce Lee shirt, an advocate of self-defense, not offense.
The association between masculinity and strength, synonymous with aggressiveness and musculature, is contested with suggestive elements: the weight on the bench-press that Darious lifts, but cannot raise above his chest, suffocating him until his stepfather helps him out. Physical fights, on the other hand, try to settle who is the prey and the predator, pushing away the female characters, June or her mother, with whom Darious learns to drive—a skill with a practical result for the narrative and a metaphorical meaning, as it is synonymous of agency, control. The very similarity between Darious and Porter’s hairstyles highlights the narrative question about whether violence is an inherited genetic characteristic or if it can be deconstructed.
Bruiser is developed within the welcome simplicity of a coming-of-age drama, with formal and stylistic decisions immersed in the critique of the portrayed forms of fatherhood: that of the father emotionally disconnected from his son’s yearnings, and that of the absent father who returns forcefully to his son’s life. I would have liked to have awarded Bruiser the jury prize, and although it was out-voted, I believe the viewer will enjoy discovering the film and getting to know the promising young director behind it.
Edited by Robert Horton
© FIPRESCI 2022