Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Drunken Birds

Written by Anna Harrison

60/100

Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds is many things. It’s a love story about a man named Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero of Roma) and a woman named Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega), who is the girlfriend of Willy’s cartel kingpin boss. When they declare their love for each other, both are forced to go on the run, and so Drunken Birds also becomes a commentary on the experience of migrant workers as Willy flees to Montreal. 

In Montreal, Willy and several other men, all of whom are also Mexican, share rickety mobile homes, where they wake up at 5:30 every morning to go harvest lettuce under the hot sun. They have the rare excursion to the public library, where they video chat with their families or, in Willy’s case, try desperately to track down Marlena.

The workers are working on a family farm inhabited by Richard (Claude Legault), his wife Julie (Hélène Florent), and their daughter Léa (Marine Johnson), and their dysfunction ripples out into the lives of the workers they hired on. Last summer, Julie had an affair with one of her employees, and family dinners have become unbearable. Richard has sunk into passivity and Léa longs for a way to escape this mundane, broken life, and thus Drunken Birds serves also as a portrait of a fractured family falling apart.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Drunken Birds is so many things, in fact, that it fails to congeal all its spinning plates, and each story thread on its own isn’t given enough weight to hold its own narrative. Guerrero is magnetic, though little screentime is given to Willy and Marlena together, sapping their romance of power; still, he effortlessly conveys Willy’s longing as he searches for home—not a house, not a place, but a person. There are hints of Willy’s less-than-ideal situation as a migrant worker, and as a Mexican in amongst a sea of white Canadians, but the film seems hesitant to commit fully to this idea and instead dances around it; the film’s climax ostensibly hinges on unspoken racial tensions, yet carries less gravitas than it should. The family drama that spills out into Willy’s life, especially as Julie finds herself increasingly drawn to him, feels like an unnecessary addition to the movie up until the final act, where it all crashes together.

Where Drunken Birds soars, though, is its visuals. Cinematographer (and co-writer) Sara Mishara creates simply beautiful compositions, often employing the use of very long takes to track characters as they wind their way through the corn fields, through the streets of Mexico, or through a thrumming night club. Wisps of magical realism make their way into the film, and everything feels slightly otherworldly; Léa’s expedition into the world of sex work and her resulting rescue by Willy in particular stand out. If the story is stretched too thin to entirely hold itself up, the lush cinematography will keep your gaze occupied even if your mind wanders, and the score by Phillippe Brault stands out as well. With a little bit of a tighter focus, Drunken Birds could have been a triumph; as it is, it keeps itself afloat through strong performances and stronger visuals, but never truly flies from the ground.

Drunken Birds was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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