toronto film festival 2019

Your Guide to the Tearjerkers of TIFF

Photo: Vulture and Courtesy of the Studios

Many of the gala screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival take place in temporarily converted Broadway-style theaters, where the acoustics are uncanny: You may not be able to make out a particularly muffled line of dialogue, but you will hear with crystal-perfect clarity if anyone else in the audience is crying. A bawl, a sob, a weep, even a whimper — if tears are flowing down one viewer’s cheeks, you can bet than everyone else is aware.

This auditory quirk makes Toronto a particularly effective venue for taking the pulse of which fall movies are hitting viewers in the hearts. As the 2019 festival enters its final days, here’s your guide to the films that got the faucets flowing this year.

The Am-I-Crying-or-Laughing Cry Movie: Marriage Story

Previously, the only people who cried during Noah Baumbach movies were people who knew Noah Baumbach in real life and had just figured out which character was based on them. But the director’s latest film, a portrait of the crumbling relationship between a controlling theater director (Adam Driver) and his L.A.-bound wife (Scarlett Johansson) feels warmer, less acidic. It’s a slow-motion tragedy, as spouses who’ve sworn they’re going to separate amicably gradually find themselves put into a position where the only logical choice is hating each other. But, like a baker adding butter to a croissant, Baumbach also takes care to knead a thin layer of comedy into every scene. As the divorce proceedings spiral out of control, Driver and Johansson get into a ferocious argument where they take turns screaming the foulest insults they can muster at each other. It’s an emotional wringer, and it also got some of the most laughs I’ve seen at the festival this year. I wouldn’t call Marriage Story a true tearjerker, but it’s a solid bet your eyes will get misty at least once. It’ll be up to you to figure out which emotion that’s coming from.

The Nostalgic Cry Movie: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

“Please don’t ruin my childhood,” the wife of journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) tells him as he prepares to interview Mr. Rogers in Marielle Heller’s latest film. Fans of the gentle children’s-television host might have said the same thing upon watching the Beautiful Day trailer, which seemed to hint toward a kind of bog-standard biopic-iness. Luckily, the movie is a little more nuanced than that. Rather than a simple biopic, it holds Rogers (Tom Hanks) at a slight distance, making him into an unnervingly nice guardian angel who helps Vogel sort out his own daddy issues. The Rhys material aims for viewers’ hankies, but it hasn’t worked for everyone. Luckily the Hanks scenes sing — sometimes literally, as when Heller re-creates the aesthetic of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for the film’s framing devices. You might start to well up at the sight of your cherished childhood memories so expertly brought back to life, but for this viewer, the dopamine rush brought about by seeing that trolley in action again was more than enough to crowd out any tears.

The Inevitable Cry Movie: Just Mercy

No scene I’ve seen at TIFF this year provoked more tears than one that comes at the midpoint of the legal drama Just Mercy. The film tells the story of legal advocate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a high-flying Harvard Law graduate who moves to Alabama and volunteers his services to death-row prisoners, most of them black men who have run afoul of the racist criminal-justice system. Despite his efforts Stevenson is not always successful, and midway through the film, one prisoner’s bid for a stay of execution is denied. In an extended sequence, we follow the man on his last night alive; by the end if it, the audience in my screening was absolutely silent, save the sound of sobs echoing from every corner of the theater. Just Mercy is among the more divisive of this year’s films: Industry types and the public have been gushing over it, while critics generally consider it a boring piece of paint-by-numbers inspiration. (One told me the movie “seems to be running for office.”) It’s considered a strong contender for the festival’s People’s Choice Award, an honor that usually presages a Best Picture nomination, and if the film does take home the prize, it’ll have those tears to thank.

The Cathartic Cry Movie: Waves

Waves made, well, a splash when it debuted at Telluride last week, seemingly coming out of nowhere to become one of that festival’s most acclaimed films. (Opinions differ on whether A24 didn’t know what it had in Waves, or whether it had intentionally downplayed it to produce the exact reaction it received.) Trey Edward Shults’s movie came to TIFF riding a swell of hype, and the reception at its Tuesday-night premiere was only slightly less ecstatic. Waves follows an upper-middle-class black family led by a domineering dad (Sterling K. Brown), whose son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is cracking under the pressure, while the daughter (Taylor Russell) is trying her best to keep everything together. The film’s first half will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Euphoria or Spring Breakers — a swirling camera, lots of neon, nonstop go-go-go energy. The whole thing climaxes in a sequence that was my second-most-stressful viewing experience of the entire festival (Uncut Gems was No. 1), after which the film switches focus, formats, and gears, and turns into something else entirely. It becomes an earnest story of forgiveness, a sweet coming-of-age tale, and also kind of a romantic comedy? I’m still not sure exactly what the second half of Waves is, but I do know that, when Russell’s character finally opens her heart up to her father, I cried like she was my very own daughter.

The ‘RIP David Bowie’ Cry Movie: Jojo Rabbit

Finally, I must shamefully admit that none of the above movies made me tear up the way that Jojo Rabbit did. And if you think I’m an easy mark now, wait till you hear what did it. Taika Waititi’s Nazi movie hasn’t received the warm critical embrace it might have expected at TIFF — it came billed as a satire, but it’s actually just a comedy, one that doesn’t have much to say beyond “racism is crazy.” But the relationship between the titular Hitler Youth (Roman Griffin Davis) and the Jewish girl his mother is hiding in their home (Thomasin McKenzie) is awful sweet, and at one pivotal moment of the film, the duo dances to “Helden,” David Bowie’s German-language cover of “Heroes,” which just so happens to be my absolute favorite version of the song. I got that familiar sore-throat feeling, and then the tears stormed down my face. Yes, I’m the goober who cries at “Heroes.” Maybe you will be, too.

Your Guide to the Tearjerkers of TIFF