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TIFF 2023 Review: Not a Word

When her teenage son Lars ends up in the hospital under suspicious circumstances, orchestra conductor Nina decides that is time for the both of them to visit the family vacation home.

Life is extremely busy for Nina Palcek as she prepares a high-profile performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony at the Berlin Philharmonic. There are the rehearsals and the constant phone calls that never let her completely leave the job behind when at home.  Lost in all of this is her teenage son Lars who is emotionally suffering from a mysterious tragic event that made newspaper headlines which involved the death of a female classmate.  The situation between parent and child becomes critical when Lars falls out of a classroom window and gets a concussion.  The prevailing question is whether this was a suicide attempt or accident caused by trying to fix a broken window though the shoes left on the floor strongly suggest that this was no misadventure.  Nina and Lars try to get some respite and reconnect by spending a couple of days at the family vacation home where the weather as stormy as the domestic life.

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Playing upon the orchestral music storyline, writer-director Hanna Slak aptly uses sound and music thematically to express the inner turmoil that the characters are experiencing.  The opening tracking shot of the whirling drone piloted through the house by Lars runs counter to the classical music being played by the headset-wearing Nina at the piano.  It is a clever visual and audio introduction to the prevailing discord that exists.  Then there are other moments like on the hike on the island where an orchestral score swells inside of Nina as she tries to get her emotional bearings.  There are also visual cues as Nina and Lars hardly share the same frame together and when they do a physical gap separates them.  The camera is classically controlled and composed style while the naturalistic lighting and colour palette produced a well-polished image.

The sad thing is I am not completely sure if the scenes of Nina and her estranged husband being more devoted to their ringing smartphones than to the people immediately around them is over the top or too true to life.  It certainly is a blatant demonstration of parental indifference and lack of support that serves to heighten the depression and feeling of isolation that Lars experiences.  At times it feels like the portrayal of Lars is taken too far as he so easily brushes off his mother and goes off in a huff.  Perhaps without that wide gap there is no character arc to be explored but one cannot wonder if a less extreme approach would be more honestly and believably earned.  However, full marks for what eventually happens to the badly damaged boat as it is as smartly executed as the opening tracking shot.

The 47th Toronto International Film Festival runs September 7-17, 2023, and for more information visit    

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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