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Review: Conversion Therapy and Crime Do Not Mix in ‘Toll’

Director Carolina Markowicz’s sophomore effort debuts at TIFF showcasing powerful work from Maeve Jinkings as the mother of a gay teenager with a lot to lose…

“Life is perseverance.”

Suellen (Maeve Jinkings) is a career toll booth worker in Brazil, a single mother, and unappreciated by her boyfriend in her personal life. After learning her son might be gay, she embarks on a mission to cure him of his demons by forcing him into a cultish conversion therapy workshop led by a renowned pastor. However, the workshop is very expensive, so Suellen mixes in with the local criminal element to earn enough money to help her son.

That’s when everything crumbles beneath Suellen, and dominoes start falling to catastrophic results.

Possibly viewed as an anti-hero from a 2SLGBTQI+ perspective, Suellen cares deeply for her son’s well-being but is easily influenced by her coworker and boyfriend to do what society believes is the right thing to do. That right thing doesn’t sit well with her son Antonio (Kauan Alvarenga), a confident and creative 17-year-old who has no choice but to listen to his mother until the day he turns 18. The two have a strong bond, but massive miscommunication might be their downfall in this disturbing story of redemption and ridicule.

Toll sits with you as the credits begin to roll. Suellen is a problematic main character to root for as she’s purposely listening to outside hypocritical voices when it’s obvious she should just listen to herself. Antonio is laced in pink, comfortable in his own skin, and doesn’t care how he presents himself to the world. Qualities any teenager would kill for, Antonio rides high on his ambition. The two are complete opposites, yet Carolina Markowicz knows precisely how to portray these characters as fixtures of an outdated notion long in need of rehabilitation.

The workshop is full of repeat offenders and those involuntarily taking the pastor’s classes. It’s built on a house of cards, ready to fall at any point, but those who send their kids there don’t understand it. Like Mercy House from the movie Saved! or the conversion therapy camp Lucas Hedges must endure in Boy Erased; these facilities exist for the people doing the sending rather than those sent there. They are clearly a disaster for the senders when these types of workshops end up being a possible dating pool for its participants…which happens in this film to Antonio’s great delight.

Filmed in Portuguese and striking chords of disgust as Antonio’s conversion therapy gets underway, this newest movie from the filmmaker who debuted Charcoal in 2022 is provocative and unsettling at its core. Maeve Jinkings gives a balanced performance as single mother Suellen, displaying humor and drama in a character longing for understanding. Alvarenga presents Antonio as a teenager still trying to figure himself out while living in a society that believes every breath he takes is the wrong one. Religious allegory and societal pressure get the better of every character.

Yet, Markowicz is intelligent enough of a filmmaker not to get bogged down in stereotypes and preaching semantics. Instead, she takes on the evils within society by involving Suellen in a smash-and-grab type of situation, using her toll booth as an alibi and device for criminal activities. It’s an incredibly subtle turn of events that results in disastrous outcomes that the audience won’t see coming. The film might be small in scale, but the premise gives meaning to a bigger storyline.

Toll is full of imposters, stoicism, and determination masked in intrigue. It’s dark, transformative, and a bit unkind to its perceived protagonists. By the end, we are left with characters who might come to the realization that praying the gay away won’t stop the world from turning. Yet, it might be too late for some.


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