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#TIFF22 Review: The People’s Joker (Midnight Madness)

September 16, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to 18th.

The People’s Joker, which had its already infamous premiere at Midnight Madness the other night, is an ambitious art project that finds its creator Vera Drew messing around in the DC Comics universe to tell the story of her own journey of coming out as transgender. And the finished product is entirely its own thing, both a piece of transgressive, multimedia superhero fan fiction and a sincere queer coming of age story.

Inspired by the 2019 film Joker, The People’s Joker initially started its life as a re-edit before morphing into being its own original movie, created on a shoestring budget through an inventive mix of live-action, different styles of animation, green screens, and miniatures (it’s so unique that it’s almost impossible to even really grade the film on an objective level against anything else). Drew stars in the film as Joker the Harlequin, a trans woman living in a dystopian version of Gotham City where comedy has been made illegal.

She is battling an addiction to Smylex, a prescription inhaler pushed by pharmaceutical companies to make you smile more, spurred by not having her gender identity affirmed by her mother (Lynn Downey) as a child (her character is played in flashbacks by Griffin Kramer). The story follows her as she starts an anti-comedy club with the Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), and enters into a potentially toxic relationship with another Joker, Mr. J (Kane Distler), who has “damaged” tattooed across his forehead.

Aside from being a visual collage that really leans into its scrappy, DIY aesthetic, the main narrative through-line of The People’s Joker is actually an extended monologue by Drew about her coming out and transitioning process. She has clearly put a lot of heart into the film, and it sounds strange to say, but the story is actually somewhat bittersweet at times in addition to being funny. It’s an audacious film that does so many things and mixes so many visual styles, that it’s ultimately like nothing else you’ve seen, and it feels like a cult classic in the making.

At this point, it would be impossible to keep this merely as a review of the film itself, considering the events that have transpired around it since the premiere on Tuesday night. Right after the Midnight Madness screening, it was announced that Warner Bros. had mounted a legal challenge to the film due to copyright issues, forcing TIFF to cancel the remaining public screenings in an unfortunate if not entirely unexpected turn of events.

Though what I saw was a work that should be thoroughly protected by fair use and parody law, the fact that the major studio who owns this IP has now put their crosshairs on The People’s Joker only adds to the anarchic, punk rock narrative around it. Seeing it at Midnight Madness for the first but hopefully not the last time was an experience that I’m sure everyone in the room will fondly remember, though I do hold out hope that the film will somehow find a way to live on, even as an underground work that gets clandestinely passed around. It deserves to be seen.

Public Screenings:

Tuesday, September 13th – 11:59 PM at Royal Alexandra Theatre

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