Stop me if you've heard this one before: A buzzy little movie comes along to the Toronto International Film Festival promising to shake up the fall season. Its star is hailed as an exciting voice, raw and honest. Its story seems of the moment, even a little controversial. Then the film premieres, and it becomes clear just how large of a toxic cloud is hovering over the whole endeavour. The movie disappears into the void, its history and its star now anathema to the entire industry.
That is what happened last year to Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, and it might have been the outcome for Louis C.K.'s I Love You, Daddy this year. Except instead of C.K.'s film getting the cold shoulder, it's been (mostly) embraced, and on Monday sold to U.S. indie distributor the Orchard for $5-million (U.S.), the biggest deal at TIFF so far.
A few key factors separate the two films, and their filmmakers. First, Parker came to Toronto in 2016 followed by a particularly distressing judicial history. More than a decade before making his slave-revolt drama Birth of a Nation, he was charged with sexually assaulting a fellow student while attending Penn State University – an offence he was acquitted of. (Parker's roommate and Nation co-writer Jean Celestin was found guilty of raping the then-18-year-old woman, but he appealed and had the verdict thrown out after the complainant refused to testify at a second trial. The woman killed herself in 2012.)
In what would prove to be an ill-advised PR strategy, Parker refused to discuss the details of the case in Toronto – which the media took a particular interest in given Birth's narrative pivots on a scene of sexual assault. It was the eternal art vs. the artist debate writ large and thrown under the glaring lights of TIFF's hot-house media-junket environment.
Complicating matters was the fact that the film wasn't very good; even its defenders conceded Parker's history made the movie a problematic sell. And so Birth of a Nation, and any Oscar hopes it had carried into Toronto, left the festival as a failure – or at least a question mark that everyone hoped would simply disappear.
That doesn't seem to be the fate of C.K.'s new film, even though, like Parker, its creator arrives in Toronto just as allegations of sexual misconduct reach a boiling point.
To quickly recap: For years, C.K. has been the subject of online rumours that he sexually harasses female comedians. No charges have ever been filed, and the allegations only travelled outside the back channels of stand-up circles due to pointed comments made by Jen Kirkman, Roseanne Barr and, most recently, Tig Notaro. The latter gave an interview to The Daily Beast last month in which she said C.K. should "handle that," in reference to the rumours, "because it's serious to be assaulted. It's serious to be harassed. It's serious, it's serious, it's serious." Notaro's comments carry particular weight given that her series One Mississippi is produced by C.K., though she stressed that he is no longer involved.
C.K. has never directly addressed the allegations himself – until, it seems, now.
Because while I Love You, Daddy is many things – an ode to forties Hollywood, an industry satire, a love letter to early Woody Allen – it also appears to be a justification. A justification for the perversions of artists, for the complicated personal lives of the creative class, for allowing the heart to want what it wants. A justification, perhaps, for anything that may or may not have happened in C.K.'s own life.
The dark comedy, shot in black and white on 35 mm film, focuses on an odd relationship triangle. On one end is Glen (C.K.), a successful but neurotic television producer in need of a hit. On the other is China (Chloe Grace Moretz), his spoiled 17-year-old daughter. And inserting himself into the family dynamic is Leslie (John Malkovich), a Woody Allen-esque filmmaker who has a rumoured history of child molestation.
It is a queasy set-up with obvious punchlines – but this is not a call to censure comedy that makes you squirm. What makes the project intolerable is how C.K. uses it as a platform to absolve any artist, presumably himself included, from moral judgment.
"His private life is not anyone's business," Glen says at one point, pointing to Leslie. "He's the greatest filmmaker of the past 30 years!" In another scene, Glen is despondent when discussing the allegations trailing his idol: "That's just a rumour."
Glen comes to distrust Leslie once the filmmaker befriends his Lolita-esque daughter, but that doesn't stop other characters from inserting themselves into the story to assuage Glen of his misgivings. Leslie's a brilliant man, they say. A pervert, but a brilliant man. (How C.K. lured in such trusted performers as Pamela Adlon, Helen Hunt and Rose Byrne into this moral swamp is a true head-scratcher.)
In between all the Allen/C.K. hagiography, both Glen and Leslie deliver extended monologues explaining what feminism is to a shell-shocked China, while Glen's new girlfriend (Byrne) offers a detailed rationalization of why it should be okay, even celebrated, for a young girl to date a fiftysomething man.
By the time the end credits roll, I Love You, Daddy reveals itself as not a movie so much as a full-blown polemic. It is an angry, unsettling screed from an artist who demands to be put atop a pedestal, and left alone. Not that C.K. himself will say as much.
"I'm not going to answer that stuff, because they're rumours," he told The New York Times while in Toronto this weekend. "If you actually participate in a rumour, you make it bigger and you make it real."
It is a challenge, though, to watch I Love You, Daddy and not think that C.K. is directly participating in the rumour, too. Judge the art and not the artist, the film insists over and over – but what happens if the art's sole reason for existence is dubious?
Despite its content and execution, I Love You, Daddy received a warm reception after its world premiere at TIFF this past Saturday. During the Q&A portion of the screening, the conversation stuck close to determining C.K.'s preferred sense of aesthetics and comedy, rather than veering to discuss the elephant in the room.
The price tag of The Orchard's deal for I Love You, Daddy suggests that the company is positioning the film for an awards run. Once that happens, there's no doubt the issues surrounding C.K. will find their way back into the spotlight.
It will be curious, though, to see whether that spotlight is as large and bright and incendiary as the one shone on Nate Parker.