By: Trevor Chartrand
Directed and co-written by Canadian actor/filmmaker Koumbie, Bystanders is an exploration of a high-concept ‘what-if?’ scenario; a film which specifically ponders the question of our own accountability and societal responsibility with regards to the actions of others.
When six old friends reunite for a cottage weekend together, the party ends abruptly after the group discovers that one of their friends, Justin (Taylor Olson), is about to be kicked out of his school due to an allegation of sexual assault. His lifelong friends each have their own thoughts and opinions on Justin’s behavior, and question the morality of their ongoing friendship with him.
In many ways, Bystanders comes across as a debate on-screen, and I could see Koumbie’s efforts working just as well as a stage play as it does a film. It boils down to six people in one location, with each character arguing their position in regards to Justin’s criminal act. Kyle (Peter Sarty) defends Justin, his older brother and role model. Sophia (Katelyn McCulloch) writes Justin off immediately; the way she sees it, staying friends with him only condones and encourages his behavior. Justin’s roommate, Zeke (Cavell Holland), is willing to forgive Justin, but Justin must first admit to and atone for his sins. Ayda (Marlee Sansom), has the most complicated response of all, though. As Justin’s ex-girlfriend, she stands up for him fervently, all while examining their past relationship for any warning signs. Her love for Justin is in direct conflict with her concern that she could have just as easily been his victim.
While this is a dramatic film, the characters primarily represent a point / counterpoint discussion, designed to present all sides of a very specific issue: where does bystander responsibility begin and end? Are we responsible for the actions of others, if we knew and did nothing to stop it? Most of the characters make interesting points and each perspective is valid in its own way. To its credit, Bystanders doesn’t push any agenda and even criticizes each position, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
The cast are all great in their roles, with an intense chemistry as an ensemble unit. Each character is brimming with conflict, reconciling their strong opinions at the behest of potentially losing some of their closest friends. The most passion and the most conflict comes from Sansom’s Ayda, who has the most personal stakes in the situation. Also, Taylor Olson’s sympathetic portrayal of Justin – the lovable dumbass – makes it clear why his friends feel so conflicted by the issue.
Set in an idyllic cottage location, this picture looks great, especially for such a dialogue-heavy movie. However, the first half of Bystanders feels like a lot like filler, nothing more than the pretty landscape where it was shot. There’s not much happening at the start of the film other than a needless subplot about a budding relationship between Zeke and Ayda. A secret romance they are planning to unveil to the rest of the gang over the course of the weekend. This story goes nowhere other than to serve as a red herring, the film’s only real narrative drive until Justin’s plot is revealed, and ultimately doesn’t come to a full and satisfactory conclusion.
Otherwise than this one misstep, Bystanders is a well made and thoughtful film that truly explores an issue, inside and out, with a tightly written script. It’s not much for subtlety, but this type of picture isn’t meant to be. Koumbie’s fly-on-the-wall approach and the film’s balanced discussion brings attention to issues that couldn’t be more timely or relevant, and will leave viewers pondering their own position on the matter.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor