TIFF 2023: Pablo Berger’s ‘Robot Dreams’

The work of Sarah Varon holds a special place in my heart. Her sparsely-worded graphic novels, Bake Sale, Odd Duck, and Robot Dreams, have both lived on my kids’ bookshelves since they were old enough to know what books were. Before they knew how to read I’d find my kids flipping through their pages, marveling at their beautiful and expressive illustrations that communicate so much without needing to use much dialogue, if any. So, when I first saw a teaser trailer for Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams, which screened at Cannes and which ended up being added to the lineup for TIFF this year, my heart skipped a bit.

Robot Dreams, like its printed predecessor, contains no dialogue. There’s the occasional expressive gasp or grunt from the all-animal cast, but never any traditional words. I find that this feels very natural, though, and it amazes me all over again how much can really come across in what is really a deceptively complex story containing elements like unreliable points of view and misdirection, without the benefit of speech.

Dog is, well, a dog. They have all the hallmarks of an onscreen lonely character. There’s the freezer full of TV dinners waiting for the microwave. The nonstop infomercials on tv. The longing looks out the window at the happy and cuddling cow/moose couple in the apartment across the street. Wait, what?

That is, until Dog discovers a mail-order robot which is meant for companionship, which they immediately order. When it arrives, so does a ray of sunshine over Dog’s life, and a friendship they didn’t know was possible. But an obstacle comes between them, so absurd on its face that when it does cause catastrophic damage to the pair’s relationship, it’s heart-rending.

Robot Dreams is, for me, one of the most special projects at the Festival this year. And I can’t wait to share it with my own kids, and everyone that’ll listen. And I can all but guarantee you’ll never listen to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s ‘September’ the same way again.

Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams played at the Toronto International Film Festival. A theatrical release is scheduled for later this year.

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