An aspiring high-school track star runs against the headwinds of bigotry and cyber-bullying in “1:54,” a message-first Québécois drama that unfolds like a slow-moving, decade-old public service announcement. Making his feature debut, writer-director Yan England, who scored an Oscar nomination for his 2011 short “Henry,” has a solid-enough feel for the stresses of adolescence, particularly when the cruelty of the many bears down on the few. But his portrayal of a closeted teenager who stands up to his bully on the track is regrettably square and simplistic, and that’s before a finale that drives the film well out of its lane. “Mommy” star Antoine Olivier Pilon adds another fine performance to his résumé, but this film seems destined to follow its brief theatrical qualification with a VOD run that may wind up short of the finish line.
The overhead shots that open “1:54” make a suburban high school look like a beehive, with each part of the building connecting in a series of hexagonal honeycombs. Once inside, the buzzing and stinging doesn’t stop for Tim (Pilon) and Francis (Robert Naylor), a couple of science nerds who have been bullied for years by the popular crowd. The two enjoy doing chemistry experiments together and share a bond that comes ever-so-close to growing beyond mere friendship, but shortly after Francis comes out at school, he’s harassed so aggressively that he kills himself. That leaves a grief-stricken Tim to figure out how to manage his own repressed sexuality while plotting some measure of revenge against Jeff (Lou-Pascal Tremblay), his chief tormenter. Once a promising athlete, Tim returns to the track to compete against Jeff in his signature event, the 800 meters, and score the one open spot in the Nationals.
Shaving seconds off a qualifying time is a peculiar form of retaliation, but Tim’s mission is complicated by an incriminating video recording that Jeff threatens to release on social media if he doesn’t abandon his efforts. He gets support from another athlete, Jennifer (Sophie Nélisse), and his coach (Patrice Boutin) and father (David Boutin), but his fellow students are surprisingly hostile or indifferent to his struggles, which perhaps speaks to the herd mentality of students. There are times when Tim seems destined to the same tragic fate as his departed friend, and other times when he seems prepared to lash out dangerously. But most often he’s working on his endurance and his running form on the track, getting better with each montage sequence.
Perhaps change comes slow to the provinces, but the intolerance on display in “1:54” seems out of step with the younger generation and its understanding of how social-media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook work. No doubt cyber-bullying is a serious problem for picked-on kids, who now have no escape at home from the hallway abuses they absorb at school, but England is working from an outdated textbook. It’s equally strange for the director to frame Tim’s struggles in an underdog sports movie, as if a winning heat at the regionals will somehow be a satisfactory comeuppance for the relentless cruelty that led to his friend’s death.
England seems to realize that such matters can’t be settled on the asphalt, but his solution sends the finale spinning into outright sociopathy. Though the film foreshadows a more disturbing Plan B for Tim, no amount of setup can justify actions that veer this far out of character and bring the film to an such exceedingly awkward, message-y conclusion. “1:54” intends to be a straight-shooting social drama about the multifaceted problem of bullying in the digital age, but it’s out of touch with how real teenagers think and act and communicate. It’s a modern film that feels like a relic.