TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Ezra is a kid with autism, and his parents, Max and Jenna (played by real-life couple Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne), struggle to raise him separately since they have very different ideas about what Ezra needs. Jenna is in a new relationship, but Max is a struggling comedian who now lives with his father, Stan (Robert De Niro). When Ezra gets expelled from school, the couple can’t agree about what to do. Max is influenced by his father, Stan, who is very old-school and doesn’t believe in catering to Ezra’s needs by putting him in a special school and giving him medication. When Max gets a big break — being booked on Jimmy Kimmel Live! — he continues his string of bad decisions by deciding to kidnap Ezra and take him on a cross-country road trip to the taping so that Ezra won’t have to be medicated.
Even before I saw Ezra, I took it as a good indication that the film had a pretty good script since it was able to attract a star-studded cast, including Robert De Niro, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Vera Farmiga, Rainn Wilson, and Whoopi Goldberg. My assumption was correct — the script by Tony Spiridakis about parents struggling to raise a kid with autism, based partly on his real-life experiences, is outstanding. It is a comedy with plenty of drama to raise the stakes. Much of the humor derives from outrageous situations, yet they are grounded in believable decisions a slightly misguided parent would make. Each major character feels fully realized and is nuanced enough that there aren’t any clear heroes or villains — just a bunch of people doing their best in a complicated world.
“…deciding to kidnap Ezra and take him on a cross-country road trip…”
But a script is one thing, and execution is another. I’m happy to say that Ezra delivers on all fronts — a top-tier script, outstanding direction by Tony Goldwyn, and a great cast led by a standout performance from William Fitzgerald, who plays Ezra. Spiridakis had been giving his friend actor/director Tony Goldwyn drafts of it for years, but when Goldwyn saw the latest version, he knew he had to direct it. If you’ve seen Oppenheimer, Tony Goldwyn plays Gordon Gray, the politician running the hearing on revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance. He’s been directing for some time, mostly TV, but based on the strength of Ezra, I have a feeling his stock as a director is about to rise in Hollywood.
Perhaps the greatest joy of Ezra is the stellar performance of William Fitzgerald as the titular kid. He is on the autism spectrum himself, and he absolutely nails a believable performance as a kid who can infuriate a parent in one second and melt their heart in another. It takes a lot to go toe to toe with Robert De Niro, but Fitzgerald makes it look like he’s been acting for years. The kid also has great comedic timing. He’s great at the deadpan comeback, and he even gets to tell some jokes of his own. Even with everything else going for it, this film either fails or succeeds based on the title character’s performance, and William Fitzgerald knocked it out of the park. As with any child acting performance, director Tony Goldwyn also deserves a share of the credit for handling the role with sensitivity and getting exactly what was needed.
Bobby Cannavale is also outstanding as Ezra’s dad, Max. He’s believable as a stand-up comedian and as a father who is his own worst enemy. His decisions are often questionable, but Cannavale infuses the character with such passion that we believe they are at least coming from his heart. The scenes between Cannavale and Rainn Wilson, who plays a friend whose house they hide out at, are particularly funny and charming. And the scenes between Cannavale and Vera Farmiga, who plays another old friend, are equally captivating, showing a genuine warmth. There’s a depth to the character of Max that could easily have been missed in a film without a script and lead actor of this caliber.
Ezra had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it received two standing ovations, one at the end of the film and another when William Fitzgerald, who played Ezra, was introduced. It has already generated a lot of buzz, so I’m sure there will be a bidding war between distributors.
Ezra screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.