Mate, mate. You’re not going to believe this one mate. Really mate. Andrew Gaynord, Tom Parker and Tom Stourton’s debut feature is one that’s going to stay with you. Seriously, mate. Stourton plays Pete, recently returned from doing something unspeakably worthy and charitable with children abroad, and invited to celebrate his birthday with his posh university friends in someone’s parents’ fancy country pile, and oh mate, you’re not going to believe what happens. Because as well as likeable couple George and Fig (Joshua McGuire and Georgina Campbell), cripplingly posh Archie (Graham Dickson) and delicate Claire (Antonia Clarke) there’s also Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), a local yokel who the gang have adopted for the weekend for a laugh, and, oh mate, it’s absolutely hilair.
What follows is the pitchest of black comedies, a scabrous atmosphere of awkward moments and unsettling mistrust that constantly feels like a horror movie but somehow never actually becomes one. At least not in the traditional sense. It’s almost disappointing – like gathering clouds and stifling pressure with no storm turning up to relieve it. Instead awkward and uncomfortable incidents are piled one atop the other until your nervous system is straining to escape your body and your skin is itchy and hot. It’s funny, absolutely, from beginning to end. The laughs come through clenched teeth and gaps in fingers clasped to faces, but they come all the same. But the real skill on show here is in how director Gaynord and writers Stourton and Parker manipulate our attitudes toward each character through nifty bits of unsettling misdirection, usually without unbalancing the comic moments.
Cringe comedy is a subtle art and it’s easy to get things wrong, ending up with sub-Gervais embarrassment with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It’s a millstone that can occasionally hang around the neck of British comedy (see Sex Lives of the Potato Men or Grimsby). A wrong foot on one or the other side can wreck things. Thankfully, though it occasionally wobbles, that misstep never occurs. What impresses here is how well All My Friends Hate Me maintains a tone of terrible tension without letting it ever snap or go slack. It’s a trick that takes real skill to pull off, especially when that tension is woven around our changing perspectives of characters and scenarios, with each of the small ensemble pulling both their weight and the rug in one way or another, like a sort of socially awkward Gosford Park.
There are issues – the final act doesn’t quite pull the strings together neatly enough. There are enough red herrings and playing with tone to make sure that the twist, when it comes, isn’t the one you necessarily expect, but the resolution feels a little cobbled together all the same; a shame in something so otherwise tightly plotted. There’s also a lot of risk in a film that’s based largely on the audience disliking almost all of the characters at one point or another. Playing with our perceptions and expectations is one of the strengths here, but it also means we might occasionally be left rootless. Thankfully our lead, Tom Stourage’s Pete, gives us just enough relatable rope to hang on to. Or is it hang ourselves with?
Anyway, mate, seriously. If you can stomach an hour or so hanging out with poshos who use the word “mate” as punctuation, if you can stop your skeleton cringing its way out of your skin and if your taste in comedy runs to the blackest of black, then this is an impressive debut which, honestly mate, you’ll still be thinking about months down the line.