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Anyone who’s ever found themselves persistently subjected to ‘hazing’, ‘joshing’, ‘banter’ or whatever term is used, whether at school, the workplace or elsewhere, will experience a shudder or two (or more) of recognition at the debut feature from Andrew Gaynord (Stath Lets Flats). Its very British humour is dark to the point of morbidity and it’s no surprise that it climaxes in violence, albeit of a less extreme nature than one might have come to expect.
Early on, it seems we might be in for a classic horror movie. When Pete (Tom Stourton, who also co-scripted with Tom Palmer) arrives at the remote country mansion where he’s expecting to be greeted by a group of old friends, only to find it silent and deserted, the camera holds on him as he huddles despondently on a sofa and successive time-lapses bring on the dusk. An isolated figure, a cavernous old house, night falling – surely something sinister and ghoulish must soon appear?
Which, in a way, it does, in the form of Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), the stranger Pete’s friends have picked up at the local pub. And as the weekend proceeds, it seems Harry has been enrolled as the spectre at the feast, his snide comments and malicious jokes calculated to undermine poor Pete at every turn. Even worse, the quartet Pete thinks of as his best friends from uni – George (Joshua McGuire), whose parents own the mansion, his wife Fig (Georgina Campbell), posh cokehead Archie (Graham Dickson) and Pete’s ex-girlfriend Claire (Antonia Clarke) – are all apparently happy to egg Harry on.
It’s a woeful comedown for Pete, who used to be known – as he desperately protests – as “Skippy! Skipper! The captain of the party!” Or was he? A key strength of Stourton and Palmer’s script, and of Stourton’s expressively hangdog performance, is that we find ourselves increasingly trapped into doubting everything, past and present, no less than he does. When he tells Archie, “You know I’m seeing a therapist?”, the pseudo-sympathetic response is “That’s good! We always hoped you’d do that one day!” Things get even worse: he’s dragooned into a wholly unwelcome game-shoot (shades of Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic La règle du jeu), and when his eagerly-awaited partner Sonia (Charly Clive) shows up, he’s terrified she’s siding with his tormentors.
The finale, with some bathetic revelations and, in the final frames, an ironic nod towards a happy ending, is something of a letdown. This apart, though, All My Friends stands as a potent entry in the cinema of paranoia – or, as Sartre notoriously put it, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”).
► All My Friends Hate Me is in cinemas now.