Review by Sean Boelman
Carolina Markowicz’s first feature Charcoal debuted at TIFF in 2022, and she returns to the festival this year with her sophomore outing, Toll. The biggest compliment one can give to Toll is that it is undeniably provocative, although this provocation often comes from the wrong sources, resulting in a film that some may find problematic.
The movie follows a single mother who begins to turn to desperate measures including petty theft so that she can afford to send her son to a gay conversion workshop. This is a double-fister when it comes to trauma porn — exploiting both poverty and LGBTQIA+ trauma — and this particular combination of the two isn’t entirely effective.
One could certainly take issue with the way it approaches its themes. To tell a story about conversion camps from the perspective of the oppressive parent rather than the LGBTQIA+ youth is… a choice. Although Markowicz’s film is clearly not homophobic or anti-LGBTQIA+, its commentary nonetheless feels extraordinarily clumsy in a way that could rub viewers the wrong way.
Part of the issue with Toll is that we don’t really get to know the protagonist’s son until the final act. It is at this point that the film becomes more of a two-hander — exploring the parallel storylines in the way that it should have all along. For much of the first two thirds, the only acquaintanceship we get with the son is through interactions with his mother or in brief cutaways.
The pacing and tone of the movie are also a bit odd. For the most part, it’s very dramatic — almost even melodramatic. However, in the last thirty minutes of the film, it takes a drastic shift into thriller territory. Then, it backtracks into an ending that feels excessively sentimental and is hardly a satisfying conclusion to the characters’ arcs.
That being said, the movie does boast some very strong performances. Maeve Jinkings is excellent in the lead role. Although her character’s actions are often unlikable — dismaying, even — Jinkings imbues so much humanity into the role that it becomes entirely convincing and frequently devastating. Kauan Alvarenga is also quite good in his supporting role, even though he is given less to work with.
Stylistically, there are some very strong moments. The cinematography is good as a whole, and there are more than a few shots that will linger in the viewer’s head long after the credits roll. However, much like the narrative elements fail to congeal, Markowicz struggles to construct these images into a satisfying whole.
Toll is the type of movie where you can tell that its heart is in the right place, but its execution is so sloppy that it fails to have the level of resonance it could have achieved. Markowicz has made a film that will almost certainly start a conversation — even if it is not exactly the conversation she had hoped for.
Toll is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.