Most films are meant to be enjoyed. Bystanders is meant to be engaged.
Directed and co-written by Koumbie, Bystander tells the story of six friends who gather at the cottage for their annual tradition of reminiscing and fun. However, what the weekend’s youthful energy changes when Justin (Taylor Olson) arrives. As soon as he walks in the room, the air changes. For some, it brings joy. For others, conflicted feelings and frustration. What’s more when the truth about Justin comes to light over a simple party game, the group must re-examine all of their relationships and decide what (if anything) should be done about Justin.
Featuring a cast of relative unknowns, the performances are excellent all around. By keeping the film in one location, Koumbie keeps the cast in close proximity to one another at all times. As a result, their constant contact requires a great deal of trust in one another. Much of the film’s success is due to their ability to respond to each other naturally and with courage. This is difficult material but, for the most part, every performance feels in sync with one another.
Having said this though, Bystanders’ best quality is its script. Tightly written and executed, Koumbie’s screenplay feels fully authentic to her characters. In every scene, she brings out the complex range of love and pain that they’re experiencing. Whereas Justin’s actions may be the catalyst of the film, Bystanders is ultimately about the feelings and reactions of his lifetime friends. Whereas some films would take this as an opportunity to create long speeches of an obvious nature, Koumbie handles every argument with nuance. While still expressing her characters views, she still manages to weigh both sides with thoughtfulness and fury.
This isn’t just a film about right and wrong. Bystanders is about coming to grips with someone else’s actions. Because of what Justin has done, his entire group of friends is left torn. Suddenly, what began as a weekend of fun traditions devolves into conversations about the tension (and line) between justice and grace. How do these issues get resolved amongst those who love the wrongdoer? Should they stand by their friend, trusting that this is an isolated incident? Turn them over to the police? What about speaking out online, knowing that this story could potentially ruin their lives forever? Each one of these questions is grappled with in detail, though with few answers. This is not a film designed to be definitive about any particular stance but, instead, to raise conversations with the audience. While the viewer may or may not necessarily agree with the film’s outcome, Bystanders is guaranteed to make you feel something.
Admittedly, for the purposes of this space, I’m being deliberately vague about what took place asBystanders truly is a film that wants you to make up your own mind on the matter. Going into the film, the less the viewer knows (or thinks they know), the better. While this isn’t a film with a lot of twists or turns, it certainly is one designed to garner a response from its audience and it does so successfully. In this way, no matter which side of the argument you land, no one is left as an innocent Bystander.
Bystanders is available in theatres on across Canada beginning Friday, April 21st, 2023.