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A coming-of-age sports movie meets a tale of cyberbullying, sexuality and even a homemade bomb in actor-director Yan England’s well-performed feature debut, 1:54. Anchored by a fierce lead turn from Mommy star Antoine Olivier Pilon, this timely Quebecois drama can sometimes creep too far into afterschool special territory, but the intense emotions on display give it a certain raw staying power. Opening in France after a minor festival run, the film could find more theatrical action in Francophone markets and relays on the small screen throughout the world.
It’s not always easy to tell where things are headed in 1:54. An extended opening follows Tim (Pilon) and his best bud Francis (Robert Naylor) — two sweet high school losers, and potential lovers, whose favorite pastime is to build makeshift bombs for their chemistry teacher (Patrice Godin). The rest of the time, they try to steer clear of the class bully, Jeff (Lou-Pascal Tremblay), who seems to put an inordinate amount of his energy into their daily harassment.
If the film starts off lightly enough, the story quickly takes a turn for the worse when Jeff and his bully squad out Francis in front of the whole school, driving him to commit suicide in front of Tim. It’s heavy stuff for sure, though England manages to have a lighter touch with his actors, and the performances — especially by 19-year-old Pilon, who was immense in Xavier Dolan’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning Mommy — feel both lived-in and powerful without ever coming across as too overreaching.
The same cannot always be said for the plot, which shifts gears once again when Tim decides to exact revenge on Jeff by joining the track team to compete against him in the 800m dash (the title 1:54 comes from the time Tim needs to beat). It turns out that Tim’s deceased mom was a track star herself, and suddenly the film transforms into a Vision Quest-style sports flick, replete with training montages and small triumphs on the field. But the rivalry between Tim and Jeff, as well as a new cyberbullying threat from the latter, will make it very hard for Tim to race to victory.
There’s a lot to juggle here, and England — who directed the 2013 Oscar-nominated short Henry —doesn’t necessarily wrap things up in a credible way, although he manages to avoid the kind of easy sentiments found in a lot of teen dramas. Also, are Canadian high schoolers so unaccepting of queerness today that two young men could be driven to do the worst because they’re gay? 1:54 has something vaguely eighties or nineties at its core that doesn’t necessarily click with the times, even if all the social media stuff feels real enough.
That said, Pilon is so engaging as the deeply troubled Tim that he carries most of the film on his shoulders, while a supporting turn from The Book Thief’s Sophie Nelisse —as a girlfriend, or rather friend-girl, much in need – helps to bring out a more human side to his character. England steers his talented young cast in the right direction despite some snafus in his story, and the fine acting is what ultimately brings 1:54 to the finish line.
Production company: Cinemaginaire Inc.
Cast: Antoine Olivier Pilon, Sophie Nelisse, Lou-Pascal Tremblay, David Boutin, Patrice Godin, Robert Naylor
Director, screenwriters: Yan England
Producers: Denise Robert, Diane England
Director of photography: Claudine Sauve
Production designer: Marie-Claude Gosselin
Costume designer: Sylvie Lacaille
Editor: Philippe Gagnon
Composer: Cult Nation
Sales: TF1 Studio
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