Toronto Film Festival 2023: Gonzo Girl


Director: Patricia Arquette
Writers: Rebecca Thomas, Jessica Caldwell

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Camila Morrone, Patricia Arquette, Elizabeth Lail, Ray Nicholson, Leila George, James Urbaniak
Runtime:  Hour Minutes


Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone star in Patricia Arquette’s high-flying, fast-paced directorial debut based on Cheryl Della Pietra’s semi-autobiographical novel chronicling her time as Hunter S. Thompson’s personal assistant.

In Patricia Arquette’s Gonzo Girl, aspiring writer (and current bartender) Alley Russo (Camila Morrone) has been hand-picked to be the newest assistant to the legendary father of gonzo journalism, Walker Reade (played by the always revelatory and electric Willem Dafoe). The film is based on the semi-autobiographical 2015 book of the same title by Cheryl Della Pietra, who survived a “three-day trial period involving a .44 magnum, purple-pyramid acid, violent verbal outbursts, brushes with fame and the law, a bevy of peacocks, and a whole lot of cocaine” to work for Hunter S. Thompson.

In the early ’90s, Walker — living in the Rocky Mountains in the afterparty of his heyday — is working on a new novel to revive his readership. He is under constant pressure from the public, publishers, and hangers-on alike (Rick Springfield has a memorable cameo). His long-term manager Claudia (Arquette) is around, as is a newish love interest, Devaney (Elizabeth Lail), flanked by a garden of flower children growing in the wrong era.

Enter Alley, who follows eight other assistants who couldn’t hack it and, high out of their minds, flew the proverbial coop. It’s not long before Alley realizes that Walker — who hasn’t written anything good in 15 years and whose breakfast of champions is a rail and a shot — is stuck inside a gilded rut and getting pages out of him is a Sisyphean endeavour. So, she starts writing her own story. Opening this year’s Discovery programme, Arquette’s directorial debut is a whirlwind and an ornately beguiling reminder to never lose who you are in the madness.

I can't say that Gonzo Girl is a good film or that it should be up for any type of award. I could probably even argue that the film is extremely problematic in the way that it seems to glorify being a terrible person. But Willem Dafoe is such a great actor and plays chaotic characters so well, I can't help but admit that I did get a lot of enjoyment out of this film. 

Let's be clear, Gonzo Girl doesn't work if anyone by Dafoe plays Walker Reade. Everyone else in the film feeds off of and plays off of his character so without him it just doesn't work. The script isn't strong enough for anyone else to make this work and whatever message the film thinks it's saying it's not. 

Knowing that this film is based on Cheryl Della Pietra’s semi-autobiographical novel makes me just have more questions than anything else. It seems to be a film about a lot of poor choices but with no real outcome. It's as if someone took the chaos from the first 20 minutes of Babylon and made that into any entire film. It just leaves you wondering "what's the point". When the film things it's saying something deep, it really isn't.

This is simple. Come for the chaotic being that is Willem Dafoe and enjoy the ride. 

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Charles (Kriss)

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