In a year that promises breakout discoveries on both sides of the camera, the queer Canadian films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) signal something in the air for our national cinema. They defy categorization and reflect a new generation of artists eager to avoid labels and chart unique journeys of self-discovery for young characters exploring the world through a queer lens. From the groundbreaking study of family and sisterhood through a young trans woman’s eyes in Something You Said Last Night, to an experimental odyssey through neurodiversity and gender-fluidity in Queens of the Qing Dynasty, to a heartfelt story of trash and treasure in ROSIE and a filmmaker’s wholehearted realization of the out-and-proud childhood they never had in Pussy, the queer class of TIFF ’22 introduces a refreshing breed of Canadian talent. As the festival brings audiences back together to experience these stories in person, these films share with Canadian and international audiences the power of seeing one’s life reflected accurately and authentically on screen.
Here are four doses of queer CanCon that should be on everyone’s TIFF list.
Something You Said Last Night
Luis De Filippis’s Something You Said Last Night will make history as the first Canadian dramatic feature by an out trans filmmaker to screen at TIFF. This confident and refreshingly humane drama delivers on the promise of De Filippis’s 2017 award-winning short For Nonna Anna. Like For Nonna Anna, Something takes light inspiration from De Filippis’s life and drops viewers into the everyday actions of an Italian-Canadian family. A breakout performance by Carmen Madonia (one of this year’s TIFF Rising Stars, the festival’s industry showcase for emerging actors) carries the film with barely a word as Ren joins her family on a vacation in Orillia where seemingly nothing and everything transforms their relationships.
“I was looking for someone who can do a lot without saying a lot,” observes De Filippis on casting Madonia in her first film role. “If you look at the script, she doesn’t have a lot of lines. Whole scenes will go by and she says, like, one word.” Madonia gives a remarkably introspective and observant performance as Ren nonchalantly spends the week lounging around the cottage. She vapes, checks her phone, irritates her younger sister, Siena (Paige Evans) and rarely leaves the house.
As with For Nonna Anna, which takes place exclusively within a family apartment as a young
trans woman cares for her grandmother, the film largely limits its action to the rental cottage. The tension is palpable, but so is the sense of security the cottage affords Ren amid the side-eyes she receives at the beach.
“She cocoons herself in this environment and every time she leaves, it is a bit jarring,” says De Filippis. “That’s heightened through the colours and the sound design. All of a sudden, it jumps out at you. The cottage, in a way, is Ren’s safe space.”
At the same time, one might find Ren’s sullen detachment alienating. She seemingly avoids thanking people who help her as she shields herself from strangers by staying silent. “I don’t really care if audiences think she’s likable or not,” says De Filippis. “What I care about is if audiences think she’s human. Men on screen are allowed to be unlikable, but women are not. There’s another level with marginalized characters—in this case, a trans character. A lot of the depictions we’ve seen of trans characters put them on a pedestal. I wanted to make a character who was real and that people could relate to because of the positive qualities she inhabits, but also the negative qualities.”
That characterization, though, makes De Filippis’s film and Madonia’s performance so radical. Through Ren’s eyes, one simply sees a mundane family holiday with all its card games, scheduled activities, escalating tension and moments of unwavering love. It’s a portrait of sisterhood and family ties in which audiences, from any background, can probably see their own relationships reflected on screen.
Queens of the Qing Dynasty
Ashley McKenzie’s Queens of the Qing Dynasty also keeps its drama largely restricted to a single setting. The film takes place almost entirely within the drab confines of a Cape Breton hospital where Star (Sarah Walker), an asexual and neurodiverse teen, recovers from a suicide attempt. Like McKenzie’s debut feature, Werewolf, the film harnesses the power of care afforded by its environment. Where Werewolf observes the challenges of addiction, Queens of the Qing Dynasty sees Star sparkle with renewal. The gusto partly comes from her friendship with An (Ziyin Zheng), a genderqueer student from Shanghai volunteering at the hospital.
Through Walker’s natural screen presence, the film demonstrates McKenzie’s care to ensure authentic representations of actors’ experiences. McKenzie meets Walker at eye level and brings a unique cadence to a film that finds great power in slow cinema.
“Language was really the key,” says McKenzie. “The way she expressed herself in words took the film in new directions. I wanted the audience to get a sense of being inside Star’s brain and being in her world.” Queens creates this interiority through the innovative sound design of futuristic beeps, boops, whirs and zips. As Star’s eyes light with wonder, there’s a great sense of synapses firing. “With Star, sometimes life feels like it’s bursting at the seams,” observes McKenzie.
Similarly, McKenzie leans into Zheng’s thirst for self-expression. The director says the MBA student approached her soon after moving in across the street and craving an outlet to “be a badass bitch” and explore queerness. “We have a lot of new Canadians in Unama’ki–Cape Breton, and we haven’t seen those experiences before,” notes McKenzie. “I wanted to honour that so Ziyin could feed this energy they wanted to explore.”
The film credits Zheng as story consultant, as McKenzie workshopped the role with them, revising the script to ensure accuracy. The film similarly embraces gender-fluidity in its portrayal of An, as their bright lacquered nails envelop the frame and their story converges with the frenetic animation laced throughout the film. McKenzie weaves this sense of fluidity throughout the film, and purposefully avoids categorizing Zheng’s character’s identity as the actor was still finding things out for themself. However, McKenzie says the film also shows there is value to using specific words to describe oneself.
“Sometimes a word like neurodiverse can help because it gives people a sense of how to talk about it,” says McKenzie.
If language is a key to Queens of the Qing Dynasty, it fuels ROSIE. The film marks the feature directorial debut of Cree/Métis actor Gail Maurice (Night Raiders, Trickster) and expands upon her short film of the same name. It envisions 1980s Montreal through the eyes of an orphaned Indigenous girl, Rosie (Keris Hope Hill), in the reluctant care of her white Francophone aunt, Frédèrique, or Fred (Mélanie Bray, Maurice’s real-life partner). The pair embrace a nomadic lifestyle while co-conspiring with Fred’s friends, Flo and Mo.
ROSIE eschews labels as Flo and Mo march to the beats of their own drums amid Rosie’s wide-eyed wonder.
“They’re not drag queens, they’re not trans; they’re not this, they’re not that,” Maurice says. “I came to a realization that I wrote the story from an Indigenous perspective. Once I realized that, it was clear that Flo and Mo are simply two humans who dress the way they wanna dress and love whoever they wanna love. In Cree, there’s no ‘him’ and ‘her.’ There’s no gender. It made sense why I struggled to put them in this box.”
Maurice says she set ROSIE in the 1980s to reflect the time of her own queer awakening. “I grew up in Northern Saskatchewan and my village was only 700 people, so I wasn’t exposed to gay culture at all,” she notes. After moving to Saskatoon for school, Maurice was whisked to a gay bar that opened a portal to a new world. “ROSIE represents that time where it was wild and free,” observes Maurice. “My heart was open like Rosie’s, which is why I made the lead a six-year-old. Children are innocent and I wanted Rosie to look at the world with wide-eyed acceptance.”
Expanding the short lets Maurice explore the backstory of Rosie’s family, as her mother was ripped from her family during the Sixties Scoop. While ROSIE isn’t autobiographical, the story echoes Maurice’s own.
“Many children of the Sixties Scoop don’t know their families and some may never know them,” says Maurice. “I have a brother and sister who were Sixties Scoops, and my mom didn’t want to give them away. I wanted to pay homage to those survivors.” Maurice pays tribute to her language and culture by setting the story in Montreal where Rosie is further alienated by an unfamiliar tongue.
“I speak Michif, which is a mixture of French and Cree,” explains Maurice. “There are only 1,130 speakers in the world, and I’m one of them, so I wanted to be able to speak about how French is part of my language.”
Maurice has a cameo in the film as a teacher who helps Rosie learn her culture and language. In passing on the culture to the young girl, Maurice extends the lesson to all children who never had the chance to connect with their roots.
Soft (formerly announced as Pussy)
Like ROSIE, first feature from Toronto filmmaker Joseph Amenta’s first feature, Soft, offers a love letter to queer youth straight from the heart.
Soft follows three friends—Julien (Matteus Lunot), Tony (Zion Matheson) and Otis (Harlow Joy) in a trio of exceptional performances—as they run free in Toronto’s Village. Amenta says they were attracted to the idea of seeing kids explore their identities without being tainted by the reality the queer community faces. “Growing up, my experience looking at queerness was always with distance, resentment or suggestions of warning,” says Amenta. “I wanted to experience what my life would’ve been had I given myself the opportunity to dive down that rabbit hole.”
Amenta says Soft found its leads through an extensive casting process that underscored the importance of sharing a story of unabashed queerness filtered through young eyes. “I saw a lot of young queer boys and saw the way they hid themselves during the audition process,” observes Amenta. “They would shrink themselves because they had been conditioned to hide these attributes, this star power, from the rest of the world.”
As the three friends mischievously do what kids do—zip through the streets, steal from corner stores and sneak into nightclubs—Soft loudly and proudly invites young people to learn to be their authentic selves, crop tops and all, and risk failure along the way.
“People try to pigeonhole queerness as a sexual orientation as if that’s the only thing that determines this beautiful difference that we share, this ability to see colours and hear sounds that other people cannot,” says Amenta. “I wanted to show visibly queer characters visibly experiencing what it means to be queer—not tied specifically to sexual experience, but to the innate spirit that resides within us.”
Amenta says they are inspired by the underbelly—”the glitter and grit of the queer world.”
“I wanted the kids to feel like colourful bandits moving through the streets like they own the joints, but in reality, owning nothing. They don’t care that they own nothing because they have each other.”
Soft is also refreshingly label-free and reflects the kids’ reality in that they’re still figuring themselves out. The director says they also found great power in taking ownership of the term that affords the film its title. “I think the word is gate-kept and it holds a lot of power for us,” says Amenta. “That power is not necessarily understood by other people. Even from some of my biggest allies, it was a challenge to get people to understand the meaning of this word, how it’s used within the film and the soundtrack, and what that means for the underground cultures of queerness.”
As “pussy” pops throughout the film, and the kids learn what it means to take ownership of a label that’s been used to beat them down, one could hardly expect to see a more empowering portrait of queerness on screen this year.