TIFF Next Wave Review: '1:54'

(Canada, 105 min.)
Written and directed by Yan England, Writ.
Starring: Antoine Olivier Pilon, Sophie Nélisse, Lou-Pascal Tremblay, David Boutin, Patrice Godin, Robert Naylor, Anthony Therrien, Guillaume Gauthier
Les Films Séville
Mommy star Antoine Olivier Pilon delivers another strong and bold performance with his turn as Tim, a shy and closeted teen in 1:54. The young actor delivers on the promise and the high bar set by his award-winning turn in the Xavier Dolan drama. 1:54 is another entry in the queer Quebec canon as Pilon’s character wrestles with his identity while struggling with a two-fold loss: his best friend and unrequited love, Francis (Robert Naylor). As both a coming of age/coming out of the closet film and study in contemporary cyberbullying, this relevant teen-set drama is a mature snapshot of the challenges facing contemporary youths.

Writer/director Yan England, who previously made the Oscar-nominated short Henry, plunges Tim into an all too realistic high school hell when Francis takes his own life. Francis found himself a target of escalating torment after coming out while standing up to Jeff, (Lou-Pascal Tremblay) the high school bully, but Tim’s fear of facing the same mockery turns him into a kind of St. Peter by denying his friend. Alienation and guilt swallow Tim, and he internalises his shame and isolation as Pilon turns the character inward as if his heart’s been swallowed by a vacuum.

Rather than withdraw, however, Tim decides to outsmart and outpace the bullies. He joins the school running team and proves himself stronger than the rest, until Jeff’s jealousy makes Tim the target of an awful game of cyber-bullying blackmail. England keeps both thumbs feverishly working the buttons of the smartphone and a finger on the cultural pulse as 1:54 realistically tackles the roles that social media and mobile devices play in the schoolyard. 1:54 doesn’t restrict itself to teen-set audiences, though, since the themes of self-acceptance and Tim’s drive to overcome his aggressors are bound to resonate with anyone just as much as the film’s take on plugged-in pressure does.

Pilon carries the film with his compelling performance and England casts a strong number of Quebecois up-and-comers alongside him. Sophie Nélisse (Mean Dreams) is a welcome presence as Tim’s friend and ally who comforts him in Francis’s absence, while Tremblay plays the part of the smug, overly confident bully well and gets a slimy sidekick in Pat, played by Anthony Therrien (Corbo), who goes along with everything Jeff does. Pat gets the film’s final word after 1:54 reaches its suspenseful and tragic climax. His statement, void of any remorse or grasp of the severity of his actions, speaks to a generation that fails to connect the consequences of the online world to the real one.

1:54 screens at TIFF’s Next Wave Festival on Sunday, Feb. 19.