Close To You | Directed by Dominic Savage | Written by Savage and Elliot Page
These were the final two films of my Atlantic International Film Festival for 2023, and, strangely, they were both shot in and around Toronto and both feature lead characters named Sam. It’s an inscrutable omen, but I decided to review them together. It turns out both films have performances to recommend but are fundamentally flawed in other ways.
Close To You is about a trans man, Sam (Page), who escaped his family and small town somewhere up to 401 to Toronto, and now is returning for his father’s birthday. His siblings and their partners pussyfoot around him, even when they mean to be supportive the inadvertent awkwardness feels painfully true to life. The scenes with family — clearly improvised — really work. Less compelling is a subplot around a high school sweetheart of Sam’s who he runs into on the way home, stoking buried feelings — not much chemistry between these actors, and it’s a struggle to even buy they’re the same age.
But what’s really off-putting is Savage’s insistence on hand-held camera and chronic close-ups throughout — it’s an artless aesthetic, giving the picture a weird claustrophobia that doesn’t wash with its themes. It’s great seeing Page back on the big screen, and he’s never less than authentic here, but Close To You seems unfinished, an extended acting exercise with ad hoc production values rather than a complete narrative.
I Used To Be Funny | Written and Directed by Ally Pankiw
Like Close To You, what’s good about I Used To Be Funny is largely thanks to its lead. Here it’s Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby, Bodies Bodies Bodies) as Sam, a Toronto comedian who also works as a nanny to a privileged tween, Brooke (Olga Petsa), whose father, a cop (Jason Jones), works all the time and whose mother is in and out of hospital. It’s quickly established that this story is being told in two timelines — Later Sam is struggling with getting out of her apartment while Earlier Sam is having fun with Brooke — except there’s not nearly enough effort to distinguish the time shifts, making for a frequently confusing story.
Sennott is a total delight, and when she and her comedian pals (Sabrina Jalees, Caleb Hearon, and Ennis Esmer, all excellent) are hanging out, along with her playing mentor to Petsa, I Used To Be Funny feels like it’s going to be a heartfelt, hilarious coming-of-age picture or a Gen-Z/Millennial generational charmer. It unfortunately doesn’t stick to what it’s good at.
Instead it leans into Sam’s trauma from an assault, which due to the clumsy, non-linear narrative we know awaits us toward the end of the film, with the dramatic notes on the way never landing as convincingly as the comedic ones do. Jones, who made his name on The Daily Show, is betrayed by a script that wants him to be a clownishly out-of-touch dad who turns on a dime into a drunken, violent asshole.
Every step away from the sweetness of the first act feels ill-advised — you can watch the movie go off the rails from scene to scene, culminating in a painfully cheesy courtroom sequence followed by a ridiculous conclusion at a Niagara Falls meth house. It’s infuriating when a movie that starts so well ends up being a wasted opportunity.