The Bystanders


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Bystanders
"A small scale triumph."

When you have one of those days in which every little thing goes wrong, do you sometimes feel as if you’re being manipulated, as if there’s some invisible force controlling your life and having a laugh at your expense?

How about when everything goes right?

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From Dune author Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment to recent cinematic works like The Adjustment Bureau, there’s a long history of tales like this. Never have they seemed quite as believable a part of day to day life as this one, however, and rarely have they had as much charm.

Meet Pete (Scott Haran), a sweet natured, quiet man so forgettable that he is inadvertently asked to sign his own birthday card at work. He can’t even throw it in the bin successfully. A one time child chess prodigy whose life since has been nothing but disappointment, he finds his world abruptly altered – and switched from black and white to colour – when he is transported to an alternative dimension (still in Barnet) and recruited by a group called the Bystanders. Who are they and how did they come to be in this situation? Sensibly, writer/director Gabriel Foster Prior wastes no time on explanations which, after all, are rarely provided to new recruits in any job. Pete has nothing better to do and is excited to have been selected for something, so he accepts.

There is a training video, a beautifully observed pastiche, in which it is clarified the the bystanders have three special qualities: they are invisible; they can move objects; and they can break electronic devices. They are tasked with using these abilities to improve the lives of their subjects. Pete is given an easy starter subject in Sarah (Georgia Mabel Clarke), a middle class white woman who just isn’t very good at presentations. Frank (Seann Walsh), the man who recruited him, has the much more difficult task of trying to motivate perpetually stoned, condiment-guzzling video game addict Luke (Andi Jashy), so sets out to trick Pete into agreeing to a swap.

What follows is a petty, vindictive and yet warm-hearted tale which combines elements of science fiction, ghost story and workplace comedy, with a refreshingly unforgiving romcom tucked into the middle. Pete blossoms in his new role, able to express a creative streak which seems to have gone unnoticed in him before, prompting Frank to regret the exchange and try to sabotage him, yet at the same time it’s the friendship between these two characters which forms the emotional centre of the film. The performances are spot on and the film’s deadpan style means that its low budget becomes a positive advantage, with the mundanity of its settings providing the perfect counterpoint to the absurdity of the action. There are scenes in which Prior’s technical skill shines through, however, such as those set in a changing room which really isn’t what you’re likely to expect.

Prior has chosen his cast well, with Marek Larwood a particular treat as a mid-level boss who may remind you of the local small business owners in cinema adverts of yore. There are scenes which could do with a bit of a polish, but too much would have spoiled the magic. The remaining rough edges make the film feel pleasingly down to earth, and reduce the risk of viewers being distracted from what’s going on between the characters. A hit on the festival circuit, The Bystanders is a small scale triumph and will leave you feeling that you’ve had a good day.

Reviewed on: 06 Jun 2023
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The Bystanders packshot
Invisible immortals watch over their human subjects and intervene in (or interfere with) their lives.

Director: Gabriel Foster Prior

Writer: Gabriel Foster Prior, Jack Hughes

Starring: Seann Walsh, Andi Jashy, Georgia Mabel Clarke, Scott Haran, Lucy Pinder, Frank Harper, Emily Wyatt, David Schaal

Year: 2022

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: UK

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