1:54 is a fantastic teen movie, which on paper sounds like a heavy-handed mess. The debut feature from director Yan England (who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2011 short film Henry) tackles a plethora of serious themes you’d expect to find in an after school special – bullying, suicide and the tension of hiding your sexuality in a hostile school environment are all present here. Where England’s film stands out from the pack is by perfectly integrating them in to an underdog sports drama, that breathes new life in to that tired genre. His film isn’t heavy-handed or overly moralistic when dealing with these issues, instead taking a leaf out of fellow Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s book by applying a sense of believable grit to a melodramatic premise.
Antoine-Olivier Pilon, the young star of Xavier Dolan’s masterpiece Mommy, here stars as Tim, a 16 year old chemistry nerd who is routinely hassled by the bullies at his school, alongside his friend Francis (Robert Naylor). Prior to his mother passing away some years earlier, Tim was an aspiring athlete, but in the years since he’s become shy and considerably withdrawn to everybody but his best friend – and even to him, he keeps the truth about his sexual identity hidden. After being thrown in his locker and humiliated in front of school, Francis takes his own life. As school life quickly returns to normal and Tim realises he can’t reveal the names of the bullies to any of the teachers for fear of reappraisals, he decides to target the main bully Jeff (Lou-Pascal Tremblay) where it hurts: signing up for track class, and beat him to a spot in the national championships.
In Mommy, Antoine-Olivier Pilon’s performance was completely unhinged: an aggressive teenager lashing out at a world he believed didn’t care about him. Although there are justifiable moments of anger within 1:54, Pilon gets to show his versatility as a performer. Large portions of the film are focused on him regressing and hiding from plain sight, a manifestation of alienation that’s the exact opposite to his confrontational character in Dolan’s 2014 film. He’s somebody you can see is broken before the film properly explores his history and the secrets he still maintains – an emotionally affecting lead performance that perfectly compliments the sense of hopelessness and despair within the school environment.
This isn’t to say the entire school is out to get him. Of the other characters, Jennifer (Sophie Nélisse) offers Tim a glimmer of hope even as he initially appears oblivious to her acts of kindness, while he has a supportive father and a teacher who you know are both deeply caring about his wellbeing, and will continue to support him once he comes out. But this is all undercut from the antagonistic presence of Jeff; Lou-Pascal Tremblay is the remorseless school bully from hell, whose behaviour towards Tim only amplifies the tension of the central underdog drama. We’ve become so accustomed to the standard sports movie narrative and expecting the underdog to overcome all the odds to win, that applying this grimly realistic exploration of bullying to the table provides higher stakes than usual without ever sacrificing the central believability of the storyline. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I felt so tense while watching a climactic sporting battle – and England even manages to subvert what we’d expect to be the climax right in front of our very eyes, furthering the film’s powerful message.
1:54 is an emotionally powerful film, which manages to portray the horrors of homophobic bullying without feeling like it was only made as an “anti-bullying” piece. It’s common for filmmakers to appear out of touch when making contemporary films dealing with bullying, often over-sensationalising and losing grip of reality. For Yan England’s film to feel grounded, even as it transforms into an underdog sports drama, is something of an achievement.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures