11/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Day 4

Journalists are forever looking for themes that connect the movies in a film festival. Programmers, on the other hand, are always adamant that they don't purposely mix-and-match movies to create thematic resonance.

Still, any critic -- or English major, for that matter -- can string together a group of films within one lineup and find a common thread. You can do it with a whole festival -- or with a series of films within a festival.

Sunday in Toronto, for example, I happened to see three films back to back that offered powerful, sometimes disturbing ruminations on the idea of family. Two of the three focused on the ripple effect that comes from an unsuitable parent; the third dealt with the power of a parent's love to sustain, even when the world is ending.

But first, a digression: In trying to get to a 9:30 a.m. Sunday screening of Ricky Gervais' "The Invention of Lying," I headed for the subway at 8:45 -- only to find it locked, with a sign listing the starting time as 9:05. Now there's one of the big differences between Toronto and New York: New York is the city that never sleeps -- whereas Toronto, apparently, is the city that prefers to sleep late Sundays.

As it turned out, all that haste was wasted: The Gervais film was a huge disappointment. I'll have a full review when it opens in a couple of weeks -- but even as someone who has loved everything Gervais has done and thinks he's one of the funniest humans on the planet, I found myself growing impatient for actual laughs, which were dismayingly few and far between. End of digression.

My mini-family-centric film festival began with John Hillcoat's harrowing "The Road," a film that has drawn mixed reviews coming out of the Venice Film Festival. The chief knock on it? That it's downbeat and depressing.

How shocking -- given that it's based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a father and son trying to survive a world-killing nuclear winter. I guess those critics were looking for a more cheerful post-apocalyptic tale.

In fact, Hillcoat's film is both faithful to and expands upon McCarthy's novel. But as the book did, it always returns to the father, played with fierce tenderness by Viggo Mortensen, and his efforts to keep his boy alive and get him to some safe place -- if such a place still exists. It's a performance that alternately smolders and flares, as Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee (as the boy) trudge through a gray, desolate landscape, trying to maintain their humanity and stay alive, while dodging others who have succumbed to the Darwinian imperative.

It's an important and a genuinely moving film, one that deserves a wide audience. Here's hoping that it finds one in the crowded award season of November, when it will be released.

Not all parents are as protective or nurturing as the father in "The Road." Consider Thea, a stage actress in Martin Zandvliet's "Applause," a stark Danish drama that thrives on her compelling performance.

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