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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Life Itself – Review

Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018


Release Date: 8 September [Canada]
Director: Dan Fogelman
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Oscar Isaac - Olivia Wilde - Annette Bening



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Posted September 16, 2018 by

Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Life Itself – Review

Abby (Olivia Wilde) and Will (Oscar Isaac) are the perfect couple. They are happy, loving, and expecting their first child. So, why is Will in mandated therapy after having been released from a mental institution? This is not how this story was supposed to go.

Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Life Itself - Review

Abby and Will were the perfect couple. But, they aren’t together anymore and Will just can’t handle it. He’s a mess, he’s aimless, he won’t open up to his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening), he won’t even see his parents. Why? Because Abby was the love of Will’s life. He can’t love anyone else the way he loves her. How is he expected to continue on?

On her 21st birthday, Dylan (Olivia Cooke) is struggling to find purpose in her life. She is angry that everyone around her dies – her parents, her grandmother, her best friend. She loves her grandfather, who has raised her, but he won’t live forever either. She pours her anger into her music, and into starting fights with strangers. How is she ever going to find a life worth living?

Deep in Spain, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) has been called to the boss’ office. Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) tells Javier the story of his life, but Javier doesn’t reciprocate. He is a simple man, Javier says, with simple interests. All he wants is to give his beloved, Isabel (Laia Costa), the happiest life possible.

Javier and Isabel are happy together, especially after their son Rodrigo is born. But when Saccione tries to insert himself into their lives, Javier becomes suspicious. But, after an accident leaves their son Rodrigo in a state of depression, Javier is forced to ask for Saccione’s help. Will their family ever be the same again?

These stories intersect and diverge in numerous ways throughout Life Itself, an anthology film in the same vein as New York, I Love You and Love Actually. But, unlike its romantic predecessors, this film doesn’t shy away from the harsher truths of life – death, insecurity, fear, and the overwhelming emotional burden of being human.

This is a story told through many eyes and perceptions, and we aren’t always sure if what we’re seeing is true or not. The film even discusses unreliable narrators within the text, an interesting break in the fourth wall which was not as well handled as director Dan Fogelman likely intended.

The cast is split almost evenly between male and female and the performances are steady – they tell the story with enough heart and emotion to pull the audience in. Olivia Wilde plays Abby as sweet and coquettish, but there isn’t enough substance for her to showcase her talents. The same with Cooke, whose role is so curtailed, she barely gets any characterization. Annette Bening is practically wasted in her small role as a therapist, which is unfortunate for an actor of her calibre.

The standout really is Laia Costa, who manages to play Isabel at various stages of life with more nuance and subtlety than I expected. It’s a shame that none of the actors opposite her had any chemistry with her.

Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta. Courtesy of TIFF

The male performers had more substance and thus managed more powerful performances. Banderas expectedly ruled every scene he was in but Peris-Mencheta managed to hold his own in his scenes nonetheless. Their characters had the best chemistry of the entire cast, and makes me wish the film had explored this aspect more.

The actor who stole the show, however, was Oscar Isaac. His effortless mix of pathos and humour told us so much more about Will than the story could have on its own. He could easily have carried this entire film; he was that good.

Life Itself is designed to be heart-breaking, and it definitely is. Fogelman is the man behind the tearjerker This Is Us, after all. For large parts of the film, there were tears from almost everyone at the Toronto International Film Festival screening I attended. The end credits were met with resounding applause that continued for a fair few minutes.

But, the sorrow and sadness affected the audience because Fogelman deftly incorporated humour into his story. The humour is dark and uncomfortable, but it’s there, and it made the more depressing aspects of the characters’ lives that much more poignant. As we know, life isn’t all doom and gloom, or sunshine and rainbows; it’s a happy medium which Fogelman expertly explores.

Olivia Cooke and Mandy Patinkin. Courtesy of TIFF

If only he had put as much thought into his female characters. While watching the film, it is easy to get lost in the emotion and drama of the characters on screen but, thinking about it after, I realized that the female characters are no more than mere plot devices.

This story of love and loss is told almost entirely from a male perspective. It’s about Will’s love for Abby, Javier’s love and fears for Isabel, Saccione’s burgeoning affection for Isabel, Rodrigo’s adoration for his mother. Dylan is the only woman with any agency but she barely has 15 minutes to tell her part of the story.

Life Itself is beautiful but by framing it from a male perspective, it often borders on creepy. Will’s infatuation with Abby is actually disturbing to watch but it is framed as romantic. It was like watching 500 Days of Summer but with none of the introspection. Isabel is even more egregiously treated, almost like a commodity to take or give away, but she insists the men in her life are “good men”. No, they’re not.

In the end, as touching a film as this is, Life Itself plays into the same narrative – men as active pursuers of life and love, and women as passive receivers of the life men hand them. This film may have the aesthetic of a 2018 film, but its values are at least three decades out of date. And sadly, that is not how we want life itself to be anymore.


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Louis Skye
Freelance Contributor

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