(It’s all good in the ‘hood.)
Starring Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire and Scott Speedman. Directed by Jacob Tierney. 100 minutes. 14A
Were you one of those people who found Mr. Rogers’ theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, terrifying on the first listen—and still dug it? Or did you accept it as at face value—as a sweet celebration of community sung by a man who really loved red, ladies’ cardigans—but couldn’t stand the sound of it anymore when someone told you otherwise?
That infamous track does not appear in Jacob Tierney’s new film, the more-than-good-but-not-quite-great Good Neighbours. But your initial reaction to it will likely define how you will view the psycho-thrilling dramedy. You’ll either read right into it and love it, or be unpleasantly surprised.
If you were thoroughly charmed by Tierney’s first widely-distributed feature, The Trotsky, there’s no guarantee you will love his latest. It’s not that it isn’t as sharp as that tale of Russian revolutionary rebel yelling. (More on that here…) Or that it’s not set in Quebec, the home province of Tierney and his man-muse, Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League and more importantly, PMK). Or that it’s not a little too proud to be Canadian. (How about some cameos from The Globe and Mail, and fellow homegrown cinematic protégé, Xavier Dolan, eh?) It’s got all those things. But it’s also got horror by the mini body count-ful.
Good Neighbours may set up an apartment-based love triangle centred around a young, cat lady-in-training named Louise (Emily Hampshire) and the men who would like to lend her some serious sugar. We may even get to meet-cute Spencer, a wheelchair-bound charmer (Scott Speedman), and Victor, a bumbly school teacher/new tenant (Baruchel), via an awkward three-sided hallway convo. But this is no referendum era rom-com. It’s a slow-simmering slasher.
It’s never a beautiful day—or night—in Louise’s city co-op. Not only does she have to deal with living in the dead of Montreal winter, she’s also got to cope with the crazy woman upstairs who actively hates her fluffy room/soulmates and Victor’s painfully obvious advances. Oh, and there’s a wannabe Paul Bernardo on the loose, raping and murdering women at random.
Louise and Spencer share a strange interest in the killer’s disgusting developments, reading any paper they can find for updates. But when Louise’s fellow Chinese restaurant employee gets killed, it’s Victor who comes to the rescue, offering to walk her home every night. As the murders continue, Louise starts to reassess the people and places she has always deemed safe and what role they can play in her future—or lack thereof.
The rest of the plot is best left buried, as it can be genuinely surprising. Things take an even darker and, in my mind, more interesting turn in the final quarter. The big murder sequence is one of the most revoltingly real on-screen kills to recent date. It has a comical tinge, due to an overly graphic Grand Guignol gag. But it almost adds to the authenticity.
This, and many other macabre moments, owe their effectiveness to the actors, who embrace the story violently. While Baruchel is as charming as he’s ever been as Victor, his nervous, nasally laughs and adorkable delivery are no match for Hampshire’s strangely off-putting (in a good way) performance. Unlike The Trotsky, where she was not only worshipped by Baruchel but also by the camera, in this film, she looks and acts really rough. She’s not an idealized survivor girl in the slightest.
Scott Speedman (Felicity, Underworld) plays with our minds as Spencer, acting like a young, blond Christian Bale character at certain moments. But unlike the film itself, which gives away much of the major twist much too quickly, I’m not going to give you any hints as to which character I’m referring to (although, I’m sure you can guess). Because if I did, I might kill your chances at seeing this slightly effed up Canadian gem. And that would really be gruesome. B
*Good Neighbours is currently playing exclusively at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto.*