We often rely upon parents to create a nurturing environment. Yet discovering our parents are flawed human beings comes as a shock to most. Sadly, many others come to this realization earlier in life. The emotional abuse suffered by LGBTQ+ people often comes at the hands of bullies and parents. It’s upsetting how often the two coincide. Throughout Toll, director Carolina Markowicz forces her characters to confront the ugly truths about their lives. It’s a compassionate portrait of a young man while exposing the flaws of those meant to protect us.
A younger mother, Sullen (Maeve Jinkings), works an unfulfilling job as a toll booth attendant. On her breaks, her co-workers show videos of her son Antonio (Kauan Alvarenga) singing in drag. Sullen grows angrier over the videos and her lying boyfriend (Thomás Aquino). When she hears a priest (Isac Graça) will open a conversation camp, Sullen strikes a deal with her boyfriend. She will provide targets that come through her booth, and with the money, she will send Antonio to the priest.
At times, Toll shines as a work of deep emotional exploration. Markowicz continues to showcase her talent as a storyteller, digging deep into the interpersonal relationships between mothers and sons. Yet Markowicz makes it clear that the issues in their relationship come from one side. As a mother puts herself and her son in danger to change her son, it becomes a clear way for her to assert power. When this mother watches her life and agency slip away, she attempts to control the one person who relies on her. In the process, her actions become far more toxic and irrational, and Markowicz showcases the consequences of this process.
Additionally, Markowicz lets Toll deliver on the sensuality it promises. The relationships between consenting characters feel rich and nuanced. The Antonio character finds something special while in a place meant to destroy his impulses. Sullen lives in a heteronormative relationship, but her profound unhappiness is on full display (as well as her and Aquino’s bodies). Markowicz correctly frames the relationships, both toxic and loving, through subtle, unbroken shots. The juxtaposition of the two reminds us that relationships can only be understood in their most private moments.
Alvarenga’s performance blows the doors off Toll, elevating the material substantially. He turns Antonio into a caring and sympathetic character, even as his power over his decisions wanes. Antonio loves to sing and dance, putting himself out there for the world to see. It does not matter if his audience comes from social media or a small club, Antonio envisions bigger things in his life. Alvarenga captures this ambition and determination. Even the quiet moments, when Antonio seems to fade into the background, stem from an act of control. Alvarenga gives a wonderfully emotional performance, becoming one of the few actors to share the screen with Jinkings and match her emotional power.
Once again, Jinkings thrives under Markowicz’s direction. She proved exceptional in Charcoal, and uses Toll to prove it was not a one-off surprise. The actress harnesses a thousand-foot stare and palpable anger to create an empathetic portrait of a woman ready to become a monster. Her actions remain unforgivable long after Toll ends, but she brings exceptional gravitas to the role.
Wisely, Markowicz plays those who run the conversation camp as inept and downright silly. However, this does not treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves. There are many who find themselves fighting for their lives in these conversation therapies, and while this one seemingly disarms its perpetrators, others are far more dangerous. It hurts Toll overall, even when the characters find power in the setting.
Ultimately Markowitz’s resume as a filmmaker continues to shine. She takes a step forward from Charcoal and tells a far more interesting and nuanced story in Toll. Her ability to capture emotion in long takes, especially when that emotion is non-verbal, has become one of her incredible calling cards. With a little more development on the screenplay, her next feature will surely be on our radar.