“Toll (Pedágio)” explores the cost of individual actions and societal pressures. [Toronto International Film Festival]

Life has grown far more absurd in reality than any other satire could possibly conceive. We have states where the governor actively lobbies for (and signed into law) a reduction in the age to work so that adolescents and teenagers can work at meatpacking plants, but shirks at the idea of kids wearing masks at a school facing a recent COVID-19 outbreak. We have religious groups pushing for the removal of any drag or LGBTQA+ material or events because “of the children,” yet turn a blind eye to the very priests who are outed daily for the violence they’ve caused to young members of their parishes. At some point, outrage became the point, rather than actually having an enemy to fight. A whole populace tilting at windmills because facing reality is somehow too difficult. In her second feature film, writer/director Carolina Markowicz (Charcoal) explores the perplexing duality of human existence in satirical dramedy Toll (Pedágio), a tale of a mother’s love being guided by the wrong hand, having its world premiere during TIFF 2023.

TOLL-Photo 1- Maeve Jinkings (Luxbox)

Maeve Jinkings as Suellen in TOLL. Photo courtesy of Luxbox.

Single-mom Suellen (Maeve Jinkings) is worried about her son Tiquinho (Kauan Alvarenga). When he’s not at school, he’s home making videos, lip-syncing to American songs, wearing make-up, and hawking products. Despite her constant pressuring to change his ways, Tiquinho refuses, determined to be himself. Suellen is desperate for assistance when her coworker, Telma (Aline Marta Maia), brings her information on a new and reportedly effective gay conversion program run by a European priest who’s bringing said program to their area. Discovering that the cost is outside her range, Suellen finds a less legal avenue to come up with the funds, determined to make the future for her child better, no matter what it takes.

TOLL- Photo 3- Maeve Jinkings (Luxbox)

Maeve Jinkings as Suellen in TOLL. Photo courtesy of Luxbox.

One can be well-intentioned and still be wrong just as much as one can be possessed by ill-will and be right. Life is a series of contradictions overlapping with each other, and, most of us, are just trying to survive. Markowicz’s Toll explores these illogicalities without fan-fare, without spotlight, without judgement, enabling each instance of incongruity to be breathed in and explored by the audience. In the start of the film, there is nothing but silence as the credits run until the slightest perceptible noise of morning plays, growing louder by the moment. From here, we’re taken inside Suellen’s home as she wakes, making the audio we just heard seem like we are within her perspective, the sounds of morning coming into her consciousness as she startles into the waking world. We observe her as she takes off her sleeping gown, dresses, and leaves for work; leaving behind a naked body in her bed. We won’t discover until later that she’s a single mother, making her a hussy by definition and unvirtuous by faith, yet she doesn’t pause for a moment to consider her own actions against those of her son and what he might be involved in. This separation between her personal view and her concerns over her son drive the undercurrent of Toll, creating within it a complex, sad, and hilarious narrative that pits the ideas of old and the new.

The richness of Markowicz’s film is a combination of the ideas (exemplified above), the structure of the narrative rollout, the technical choices, and the performances. Consider how the title itself is loaded with meaning. Without getting too deeply into it, Toll can refer to Suellen’s job, working as a toll worker, and it can refer to the cost of something. In this case, what’s the toll taken on her relationship with Tiquinho by constantly pressuring him to change who he intrinsically is? What’s the toll taken on her morals and ethics by perusing illegal methods to pay for the conversion therapy? How does she justify to herself that she remains in some kind of karmic balance and what’s the cost of such possible delusion? One might presume that Toll refers to Suellen herself after watching her pilgrimage-like journey to work at the start or the hypocrisy she experiences in almost every facet of her life (knowingly or otherwise), yet that would only speak to one aspect of what it means. It’s not until well into the film when Suellen makes her choice to raise funds that the concept of what the title Toll may infer comes into sharper focus. And the structure is important to this. A different film might race to the choice and spend the majority of the film being about Suellen getting herself in over her head, a potential “toll” to be paid later, but Markowicz instead opts to follow the characters and keep them as grounded as possible, enabling them to decide when the pressure increases and decreases. It’s not until well into the film that things really kick into gear regarding Suellen’s moral/ethical dilemma and, by then, we’ve already seen the ways in which the older generation (marked by Suellen and her peers) are miles behind the ideology and philosophy of the newer generation (marked by Tiquinho and the people he engages with). Though the whole of Toll is grainy yet also naturalistic, absent strong colors unless through means within the film (like Tiquinho’s make-up, work outfits, or the video lighting he uses), it’s in no way shot as to be nevoid of energy or life. Rather, nothing at all is presented in an unordinary way, a method which makes the extraordinary choices or presentations of content amplified due to their discrepancy. Like the slow fade-in of sound at the start of the film, the visual elements play a key role in conveying intention and seriousness versus mundanity.

The place where this is present the most is within the scenes of Pastor Isaac (Isac Graça) when he’s working with the patients in group therapy. The backdrop behind him features a bird in flight, it’s redness vibrant against the brown and gold within the meeting room; whereas the pastor himself is scraggly, eyes devoid of passion (as if something’s been stamped out), trying to convey expertise and care while pointing at one of two monitors with a high-definition photorealistic anus on display — the anus in possession of more color and life than the pastor himself. These sequences seem intentionally designed to elicit chuckles as much from Tiquinho as the audience, the sight of an anus (wrinkles and all) on display while the pastor proclaims its connection to the Devil and the battle for the eternal soul. It’s also within these scenes, outrageous as they may outwardly seem, that audiences are treated to some of the more realistic cinematography in the film, even as the words and deeds of righteous, godly people rarely align with anything beyond how they view their own soul and not the teachings of their faith.

TOLL- Photo 4- Caio Macedo and Kauan Alvarenga (Luxbox)

L-R: Caio Macedo as Ricky and Kauan Alvarenga as Tiquinho in TOLL. Photo courtesy of Luxbox.

According to the press notes accompanying Toll, Markowicz explains that in Brazil there is a prominent issue with homophobia and the wildly strange ways in which it presents itself. Two examples she provides are one conservative politician who told their followers not to allow their children to play with an Elsa doll as that character from Frozen is coded as gay (thereby transferring that to children) and another who said they’d rather have a dead child than a gay one. In the United States, as we see constant displays of machoism from politicians over beer and guns, learning of the statements from Brazil aren’t anywhere near the realm of far-fetched. Instead, the plausibility of it here, as there, is what makes so much of Toll powerful, even if its sneakily so. Its weight doesn’t hit you all at once as some other films featuring LGBTQIA+ storylines might, opting instead to slowly creep in as we observe Suellen’s potentially well-intentions shift even as her love for her son doesn’t. This very well may be the thing that saves Toll from depressing territory as the complex performance from Jinkings (Charcoal) puts front-and-center how deeply she cares for her son, only wanting him to be safe. She does love him for him, encouraging where she can, but it’s the fears of the world keep Suellen from embracing him fully, something which Jinkings’s performance grasps completely, making her sympathetic even when maybe we might think otherwise. For his part, Alvarenga (The Orphan) is a strong scene partner, able to convey the mixture of absolutism and uncertainty that all adolescents feel, especially when trying to figure themselves out in the regular growth rite of passage. But even when not working opposite Jinkings, Alvarenga makes one want to lean-in during his scenes with the emotion he conveys just from his face enough to hold our attention.

TOLL-Photo 2-Kauan Alvarenga (Luxbox)

Kauan Alvarenga as Tiquinho in TOLL. Photo courtesy of Luxbox.

If the ideas mentioned in the above sound compelling to you, then Toll is a film you should try to check out, whether during TIFF 2023 or in a wider release. It’s got enough going on that it can be enjoyed for its complexities as they exist on screen or be utilized as a starting point for a larger discussion on the intersection of faith, sexuality, and respecting our neighbors. Given that the way sexuality is presented within a certain hypocritical perspective, it may be a great tool for the audience to turn some of that reflection upon themselves in order to identify their own biases and social incongruities.

Screening during Toronto International Film Festival 2023.

For more information, head to either the official TIFF 2023 or Luxbox Toll webpage.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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