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The Long and the Short of It: A TIFF Review of ‘Gonzo Girl’

September 17, 2023Ben MK

Widely regarded as the father of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson inspired his fair share of writers, not to mention a handful of feature films, throughout the course of his nearly-50-year career. Famously portrayed by Johnny Depp in 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson was a man of many vices and an icon to the counterculture movement. It's a badge of honor Thompson wore proudly on his sleeve — yet, despite all that's been written about him and despite everything that the general public might think they know about him, the truth is that there's always more to be told.

Enter Gonzo Girl, the directorial debut from Patricia Arquette, which tells the tale of aspiring writer Alley Russo (Camila Morrone). A recent college grad who's just been tapped to be the assistant to legendary gonzo journalist Walker Reade (Willem Dafoe), Alley isn't quite sure what to expect when she moves from her cramped apartment in New York City to Walker's spacious Rocky Mountain ranch in the summer of 1992. But whatever her preconceptions and expectations are, she'll soon have to throw them out the window. After being given the rundown on Walker by his weary secretary Claudia (Arquette), Alley must quickly acclimatize to Walker's bizarre method of working, a creative process that involves copious amounts of alcohol, sex and hard drugs. Suffice to say, words like "self-control" and "moderation" don't appear to be in Walker's handbook. So if Alley is to survive the next three months and do the job she was hired to do, she'll have to buckle in and go along for the ride — even if she has to sacrifice a little bit of herself by becoming a willing participant in the ensuing whirlwind of insanity.

Based on Cheryl Della Pietra's 2016 memoir of her time serving as the assistant to Hunter S. Thompson, the result is a story of innocence lost that's at its psychedelic best whenever Dafoe and Morrone are playing off of one another. Whether it's Alley and Walker's lurid, late-night writing sessions or a drug-fuelled diner stop interrupted by sentient, slithering spaghetti, the pair's scenes make for some of the movie's most mesmerizing moments. And while Gonzo Girl definitely blurs the line between fact and fiction, what resonates with the greatest sincerity is its portrayal of the jekyll-and-hyde relationship between a mad genius and his ingénue.

Gonzo Girl screens under the Discovery Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 47 min.

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