At BFI Flare, 1:54 was a rather polarising movie, with some praising the dark repercussions of teen homophobia it explores, whilst others felt it was all a little contrived – one person even called it exploitative.
Tim (Antoine Olivier Pilon) is a teenager who has spent years being bullied, which has grown increasingly homophobic in nature. His only friend is Francis (Robert Naylor), and while both feel an attraction to each other, they both ignore it, at least in Tim’s case because of the fear of what will happen if others – particularly the group led by the unpleasant Jeff – discover he really is a ‘fag’.
The fear also causes him to reject Francis after the young man admits being gay. Things then get worse for Francis, with Jeff intensifying both the physical and psychological intimidation – leading to the young man’s suicide.
Wracked with guilt over Francis’ death and still being tormented by Jeff and his crew, Tim makes the decision to fight back through sport. Jeff is an athletics champ, hoping to get a place at the nationals in the 800m, but Tim was also a running star when he was younger and feels that with training he could beat his tormentor. However, when Jeff gets hold of a compromising video of Tim, things take a far more serious turn, which could change everyone’s lives forever.
It seems 1:54 is a bit of a love it or hate it movie. While some at the BFI Flare screening were impressed by the way it confronted important issues head on – homophobia, teen suicide, bullying (both online and in person), the potential for mass violence – others felt annoyed that while it took on those issues, it didn’t handle them that well.
Sadly, I was among the latter. I couldn’t help feeling it was a case of ‘first time director’ syndrome, where someone is so keen to make something relevant and important, that they ignore how contrived and over-the-top the film ends up being. To get to the places 1:54 wants to go, you have to be extremely careful, but here getting to that point and making that statement is often more important than whether it feels like there’s a genuine truth to how it got there. Writer/director Yan England should be praised for what he’s tried to do with 1:54, but the film relies on the audience overlooking too many plot holes and inconsistencies to fully work.
Perhaps the largest problem is the reaction to Francis’ suicide, which comes across far more like how a kid thinks adults react to things, rather than what would really happen in a Canadian high school – not least that it’s unlikely everyone (barring Tim) would be so blasé about it. There are also issues with how the movie suggests beating Jeff in a race will somehow make up for the fact he bullied someone to their death, and an ending which is emotionally impacting, but is also rather extreme and feels more like it’s about creating high drama and being provocative than exploring the truth of young, bullied gay people.
Ultimately, I couldn’t help feeling the whole thing was a bit of a fantasy. Many films get pilloried for being too light and not reflecting the truth of the world because they contrive things too much in a positive way. 1:54 is the same but opposite, it wants to show the dark side of things so much, that it ignores both how contrived it has to be to get there, and how many clichéd moments it uses to get there.
It’s immensely frustrating, as these are incredibly important topics, and for much of its running time 1:54 handles itself well. When the movie quietens down and solely looks at Tim and his world, it’s excellent – helped by a great performance from Antoine Olivier Pilon – taking you deep into the world of a troubled boy whose life and options are being increasingly crushed by intense homophobic bullying and a world around him that seems to offer few outlets. It’s only when the movie wants to show the outcomes of these things that it often takes things too far.
Up until the point of Francis’ suicide, 1:54 is a film that’s verging on brilliant and could have been genuinely important. However, after that moment, it all starts to come unstuck.
Overall Verdict: Good performances and a devoted desire to look at incredibly important topics can’t hide the fact that 1:54 is too contrived for its own good, where the desire to make a statement overtakes the truth of the situation.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac