TORONTO (Reuters) - The scourge of homelessness has emerged as a major theme at this year's Toronto film festival, driven by performances from an unlikely trio: an Oscar-winning actress, a well-known male sex symbol and a recently recovered heroin addict.
"Time Out of Mind" and "Shelter," which had their world premieres at the 11-day movie showcase, and "Heaven Knows What," which came to Toronto after a debut at the Venice festival, all focus on characters who struggle with homelessness and addiction on the streets of New York.
The films reflect just how pronounced the homelessness problem is in the city, said "Time Out of Mind" director Oren Moverman.
"The first thing you do when you're trying to fix something is to call attention to it. So I think these three films are trying to call attention to something and I think that they should be commended for it," Moverman told Reuters ahead of the film's premiere this week.
"Time Out of Mind" features "Pretty Woman" star Richard Gere, an actor better known for roles as a corporate raider, hedge fund manager and smooth-talking lawyer. Variety has already called it one of his more remarkable performances.
The actor once described as the sexiest man alive by People magazine is almost unrecognizable as George, a vagrant who shuffles between abandoned houses, park benches and overcrowded men's shelters, with frequent trips to a liquor store when he gets enough money.
While part of the film is about his attempts to reconcile with an estranged daughter, much of the story is simply uninterrupted takes of Gere begging for change, scrounging for food or struggling to navigate the bureaucracy for something as common as an identity document.
Jennifer Connelly, who won a best supporting Oscar in 2002 for "A Beautiful Mind", has received positive reviews for her performance in "Shelter", written and director by her actor husband Paul Bettany. She plays Hannah, who spirals from an affluent existence into depression and addiction after the death of her husband.
The plot centers on an unlikely romance with an illegal immigrant named Tahir also traumatized by the loss of his family. But like "Time Out of Mind," much of the film focuses on the daily indignities of struggling for money and a place to sleep on the street.
In the third film, "Heaven Knows What," Arielle Holmes, 20, has won praise for her performance, which Variety's chief film critic called "electrifying." The story behind the movie is just as compelling.
The movie's directors, brothers Joshua and Ben Safdie, met Holmes while researching another film, not initially realizing she was both homeless and addicted to heroin. They urged her to write her story, which became the basis of the film: the life of a homeless, drug-addicted teen.
Holmes, who is now off drugs and off the street, told Reuters after the film was shown in Toronto she hoped her work gets viewers to pay closer attention to a part of society many simply walk past.
"It's a world that is unseen by most of the world. And I feel like (the film) is a way of helping people understand other people. It's a way of connecting," she said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Jeffrey Benkoe)