Photo Credit: Atsushi Nishijima
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TIFF Review: Ava DuVernay Asks the Big Questions in the Moving and Powerful ‘Origin’

Angela Davis once said that “walls turned sideways are bridges,” and that’s something Ava DuVernay definitely believes. Not only did she say it while introducing Origin here at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie reflects it. In taking on some of the most expansive and challenging material of her career, DuVernay has also crafted her best film to date. This is a moving and powerful work that demands to be seen, as well as discussed.

Origin is a stunner. It’s meant to be a conversation starter, whether you agree with all of her points or not. In fact, she’s very much inviting debate, Adapting the Isabel Wilkerson book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents would be a challenge for anyone. DuVernay makes it look easy, even though it undoubtedly wasn’t. The emotions she generates are consistently strong, yet never manipulative.

An adaptation of the book Caste, it’s the story of how author Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) went on a journey that led to its writing. In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing, Isabel is set to take some time off, wanting to help her elderly mother (Emily Yancy). Her husband (Jon Bernthal) sees the writer inside her needing to get out, which happens in the aftermath of a pair of tragedies in Isabel’s life.

Needing a project, Isabel takes on nothing short of a global investigation into the origins of the caste system, responsible for much of the inequality in the world. Traveling to Germany and India, she links segregation in America with the Nazis and the Dalits. As she researches, she’s given support from her cousin (Niecy Nash), as well as reflections back on those she’s lost. To say more would be to ruin the experience.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is excellent in a role that asks her to do a lot. The writer aspect of the the character, as well as the wife and daughter aspect, are both given equal weight. You feel her pain at how unfair life is, as well as the yearning to change the system. Ellis-Taylor hammers it all home with grace. Jon Bernthal is at his warmest in a supporting husband role he makes look effortless, while Niecy Nash is both a support system as well as a bit of comic relief. In addition to a very good Emily Yancy, the supporting cast includes the likes of Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Connie Nielsen, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood, Finn Wittrock, and more.

Ava DuVernay writes and directs this with power and precision. She is fueled by the material and it shows. Origin means the world to her, so she makes sure it means as much to you. The screenplay manages to walk just up to the line of being overstuffed and never crosses. Her script packs a lot, including a punch, into two hours and fifteen minutes, but the pacing is right on the money. DuVernay’s direction is a picture of restraint, never going for the easy emotional shock moment. Any and all tears are earned. From top to bottom, the heart and soul she’s imbued the picture with comes through in every single frame.

Origin will leave you a mess. You’ll want to talk about it, that’s for sure. Here at TIFF, discussions were being had. Moreover, you’ll be thrilled to have DuVernay back in cinemas, if frustrated that the industry made it such a long road. The end result showcases how she should be given the keys to Hollywood, plain and simple. This is a wonderful film.

SCORE: ★★★1/2


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Written by Joey Magidson

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