1:54 is a well-acted and emotionally raw film that reaches powerful emotional heights only to crash and burn because of profound, problematic narrative flaws.
1:54, the debut feature-length film of Québécois writer-director Yan England, is a well-acted and emotionally raw film that reaches powerful emotional heights only to crash and burn because of profound, problematic narrative flaws. England, Oscar nominated for his 2011 short Henry, is an overtly talented filmmaker and creates a believable high school world for 1:54’s action to unfold within. He also draws beautiful performances from every major player, particularly lead Antoine-Olivier Pilon. The film’s settings and characters feel gritty and viscerally real, calling to mind the work of the Dardenne brothers and Romanian new-wavers Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu. But just as the foundation of the film feels solid and rooted in real, painful reality, the plot spins off into odd, macabre and dangerous directions, turning 1:54 into a skeleton of a film, all solid bone with nothing to hang from it.
1:54 follows Tim (Pilon), a teenage track and field star who is struggling with his sexuality and with defining his place in his school’s social hierarchy. Tim lives with his widowed father (David Boutin, excellent here) and has few friends outside of Jennifer (Sophie Nélisse). Just as he’s starting a tentative romance with the sensitive Francis (Robert Naylor), rival and bully Jeff (Lou-Pascal Tremblay) wreaks havoc, abusing them both so aggressively that the fragile Francis ends up taking his own life.
This is where 1:54 takes its most fatal turn. In a world where so many LGBTQ+ youth are bullied and do take their own lives, dramatic representation is, of course, important. But things get even worse for poor Tim after Francis’ death and the film begins to feel hopeless and angry to the point of viciousness. 1:54’s portrayal of young gayness is a frenzy of shame, bullying, self-abuse and death. If this wasn’t bad enough, the film swerves in an absurd direction towards its end, transferring Tim’s internal hatred outward. 1:54 highlights gay suffering so aggressively that it begins to fetishize it.
This may be forgivable if the suffering served a purpose or perhaps provided a glimpse into real teen life, but 1:54, for all its gritty realism, doesn’t ever put its characters in situations that feel authentic. Instead, it forces its characters to serve its increasingly cynical and audacious plot. Tim, in particular, is in constant retreat, and the audience is never shown the expected catharsis that he deserves after all of his unjust suffering.
Despite the plot’s rageful and confusing trajectory, much of the talent involved in 1:54 puts in excellent work. Claudine Sauvé’s dark, claustrophobic cinematography beautifully expresses a pained high school existence, and the performances consistently exceed the material. Pilon elevates his role, perfectly portraying the mixture of hope and hopelessness that so many gay teens experience in their social encounters. Nélisse, so good in The Bone Thief, is given painfully little to do here, but still manages to bring across the pain, loyalty and protectiveness that female friends of young gay men so often take on their brave shoulders. And Naylor manages to be magnetic, fragile and tragic with little dialogue to use for support.
The world is filled with so much violence against teens, particularly LGBTQ+ teens, that cinematic representations of their suffering need to be particularly responsible in how they choose to represent that violence. Yan England’s 1:54 is irresponsible in this regard, attempting to milk a distant and exploitative point out of aggressive, excessive violence against and by queer youth. If the significant talent of those involved had been channeled into something more sensitive then 1:54 really could have been something.