The Fantasia Film Festival Is A Genre Film Paradise (Once Again) Part II

It’s difficult to write a recap that does justice to the Fantasia International Film Festival. It spans nearly three weeks and offers dozens of feature films. That’s why I never refer to my festival coverage as “The Best” films from a particular festival. They are my favorite films among the festival offerings I saw, but there are certainly dozens of worthy contenders that I simply did not have time to get to. In my first piece about the 2023 edition of this wonderful festival from Montreal, I took a look at a gritty horror film, a man in peril thriller and a science fiction film with a very clever premise. (That post can be found here.)

Awards season is upon us. New films from Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, and Michael Mann are just a few weeks away. Fantasia always feels like the last gasp of summer, a buffet of genre film excellence before we transition to the prestige films of fall. Here are a few more Fantasia films to look for as they hit digital rental outlets and streaming platforms in the weeks to come:

Insomniacs After School: Occasionally at the Fantasia International Film Festival amidst the edge-of-your-seat thrillers, speculative sci-fi and terrifying horror offerings, you find a lovely coming of age film, a love story or often a film that is both. In 2019, it was director Kim Bora’s touching House of Hummingbird. In 2020, I stumbled across Chen Yu-Hsun’s time-tripping romance My Missing Valentine. This year the award for unexpectedly delightful film goes to Yuuki Ikeda’s quirky adolescent romance Insomniacs After School.

Ganta Nakami suffers from insomnia. He spends his nights staring at his ceiling and his days fighting to stay awake at school. One day he decides to sneak into the abandoned school observatory to take a nap. There he literally stumbles over a fellow insomniac, Magari, who uses the observatory as her own quiet refuge. Magari initially stakes her claim to the ideal napping spot, but hostilities give way to friendship as the two teenagers bond over their mutual nocturnal affliction. Does their friendship blossom into the beginning of true love? I’ll never tell.

Insomniacs After School deftly creates a cast of characters the audience cares about. Quirky characters are often hard to relate to, and if you can’t relate to the characters, how can you possible care about the outcome of the film? Insomniacs avoids these pitfalls. Even after spending nearly two hours with Nakami and Magari, I wanted to see more of their lives. That’s the magic of a well-made film. Evidently, I’m not the only one because Insomniacs After School has been made into a 13-episode animated series in Japan. Hopefully a version for English-speaking audiences will eventually hit our cyber shores.

New Life: This indie gem from writer-director John Rosman hits the ground running and never loses steam throughout its 87-minute runtime. In the opening scene, Jess (Hayley Erin) is running down a residential street with blood on her face, repeatedly glancing over her shoulder. The audience doesn’t know who is pursuing her or why. She enters her home, frantically looking around a place that once was safe, but clearly is no longer. In the background, unseen by Jess, we see two figures enter her home and … cut to the opening credits.

The film expertly shifts from Jess to her pursuers (played by Sonya Walger from Lost and Tony Amendola from the Stargate television franchise) to brief flashbacks showing how Jess ended up in this predicament. Films told on multiple timelines are often cumbersome, but the editing of this film is so smooth, it becomes an asset. The sharp screenplay manages to avoid long passages of spoken dialogue and unnecessary explanations. The audience is certainly interested in why this is happening, but we’re more captivated by what happens next, and that’s the narrative center of a quality chase thriller.

New Life is the rare thriller where you genuinely care about the primary characters. Hunter and hunted are well-rounded human beings. It’s not as abstract as good versus evil. Something unfortunate has happened, and the consequences are playing out in front of the audience. Sonya Walger and Hayley Erin give excellent performances that pay-off in a surprisingly touching final scene. New Life is top-notch genre film-making that actually sticks with you after you leave the theater.

Raging Grace: Joy (Max Eigenmann) is from the Philippines, living illegally in the United States with her daughter Grace. She moves from one under-the-radar job to the next, trying to earn the money to purchase a counterfeit identity. One day Joy stumbles into a job opportunity caring for a woman’s sick uncle (played by veteran U.K actors Leanne Best and David Hayman) on a large family estate. Joy finds herself with room, board and the best wages she’s seen since coming to the U.S. The only snag is no one knows she has a daughter. So Grace must live secretly with her mother in the large mansion.

This sounds like the set-up for a creepy haunted house film or ghost story, but Raging Grace is not a supernatural thriller. It’s an altogether different film than you may initially expect, and that’s a good thing. I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the film by revealing anymore of the plot details. I’ll simply say all is not as it seems, and Raging Grace delivers solid tension and some nice scares as it unfolds.

Where the film sets itself apart from standard genre fare is it’s exploration of the world of illegal immigrants. Joy is exploited by employers and cheated by the people selling her a new identity. But what can she do about it? Call the police? Of course not. For all intents and purposes, Joy doesn’t exist. The law affords her no remedy. She’s a ready-made victim, and everyone dealing with her understands this unspoken power dynamic.

Raging Grace examines what it’s like to be treated as a “thing” and not a person. When the simple act of standing up for herself could draw the wrong kind of attention, Joy is forced to be invisible. And what about Grace? Is she destined to live in the shadows for the rest of her life and rear her own children to do the same? Along with its thrills, Raging Grace asks what happens if you eventually become invisible to yourself?

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