All My Friends Hate Me
Random finds are usually the best, as you start these films with zero expectations. I hadn't heard of the director nor the creative team behind this film, never saw it mentioned by anyone, didn't even see a trailer or a poster of Andrew Gaynord's All My Friends Hate Me. There was only an appealing title and the vague promise of a horror/comedy crossover. In the end, the film didn't even make good on that promise (though I do support the categorization - more on that later). And still, as the film progressed, it just got funnier and funnier. What a delightful discovery this turned out to be.
Like most genre definitions, people can quarrel for hours about what does or doesn't belong in a certain genre or niche. While I am a very spirited fan of black comedies, I tend to find that many comedies aren't quite dark and/or black enough to deserve the categorization. There needs to be more than just a whiff of morbidity or a dash of insult to get me smirking. Gaynord's All My Friends Hate Me doesn't even appear that mean-spirited on the surface, but it is a film that isn't afraid to commit and make fun of its lead character, one of the more tragic characters I've seen in a long, long time.
The lead character (Pete), played by one of the writers (and based on a personal experience of his), is a work of perfection. He's not a terrible guy really, he does genuinely mean well, but he has something about him that makes him very easy to dislike. Pete's a bit too unsure of himself, a bit too needy, says the wrong things at the wrong time, can't let go of trivial details and can't hold on to a good thing even if his life depended on it. It's a David Brent-like character, meaning this can be somewhat of an uncomfortable watch for some and not everyone will pick up on the comedy. Those who do are in for a treat.
Pete is turning 31. To celebrate his birthday, he has gotten an invitation from his old college gang. It's been years since he's seen most of them, Pete figures it's as good a time as any to catch up with his former palls, rekindling some old friendships. The party is at a huge estate in a remote part of the country. After several awkward run-ins with the locals, Pete finally arrives at his destination. He feels elated and is ready to get the party started, but his friends are nowhere to be found, and Pete starts to suspect they might be playing a mean prank on him.
Comedies are less reliant on cinematography than most other genres, but Gaynord makes a clear effort to elevate the look of his film. It's nothing too exceptional, at the same time it is difficult to miss the extra level of polish he added. The landscape photography looks slick, the estate is extremely moody, some smart camerawork builds up the tension, as does the framing and editing. Gaynord also cleverly mimics some visual horror tricks in order to further confuse his audience. It's certainly a lot more than I'd expect from a standard comedy, which is always appreciated.
The same goes for the soundtrack and the sound design, where the effect is even more pronounced. Gaynord clearly took some cues from the horror genre there, from manic noise build-up to amplify the agitated state of the lead character, to something simpler, like the sudden fog horn + title reveal effect (including screen-sized fonts) so prevalent in horror films of the past decade. It's this kind of playfulness that makes the film that much more enjoyable, and which betrays not just a director with a steadfast idea of what he wants, but also a director who knows what needs to be done to pull it off.
A film like this, no matter how funny the writing, hinges heavily on its central performance. And who better to play the lead than Tom Stourton, the guy who wrote the thing based on a personal experience. He clearly understood what was needed to make the Pete character work, and he was bold enough to have a little fun at his own expense. His character is easy to pity, while just annoying enough to not feel bad for having a good laugh at his expense. The rest of the cast is lovely too, with a stand-out performance from Demri-Burns, who plays one of the most understandably unwelcome guests ever.
Gaynord could've made it easier on himself by going full comedy, but the film mixes in horror elements to add an extra level of intrigue. These horror influences are almost entirely stylistic, but they do manage to amp up the tension, and they help cast the needed doubt on Peter's character. Gaynord then uses that extra bit of tension to drive the comedy just that little further over the edge. In the end, there's nothing truly horrific about the film, except maybe the incredible sense of awkwardness you feel when these characters attempt to pick up their old friendship.
All My Friends Hate Me isn't the boldest or most attention-grabbing film you'll ever see, but the way it goes about accomplishing what it sets out to do is incredibly smart and confident. Both the writing and the direction stand out, combined with the superb performances, the perfectly paced build-up and the fitting finale, it makes for an excellent black comedy. Gaynord and his writer duo should definitely keep the collaboration going, as comedies this good are quite rare. If you like yourself a bit of uncomfortable comedy, this is a very easy recommend.