Directed by Koumbie | Written by Koumbie, Taylor Olson, and Lisa Rose Snow | 90 min | ▲▲▲▲△
A version of this review appeared on FITI in September 2022 during the Atlantic International Film Festival.
Bystanders arrives with a courageous script. It wades into issues a lot of people are talking about that other screenwriters might hesitate to consider.
It’s the story of a group of lifelong friends — played by Katelyn McCulloch, Marlee Sansom, Deborah Castrilli, Peter Sarty, Cavell Holland, and screenwriter Olson — who gather together in a cottage in the woods to party. Two have been sustaining a secret romance, but when med student Justin (Olson) arrives, the playful tone of the gathering changes. It turns out Justin has been accused of assault by an ex-girlfriend. How this information runs through the other five, and what they do about it, is what drives the rest of the movie.
As an audience member, the first question you end up asking yourself is, “What would I do in a similar situation, if someone I was close to did this?” followed rapidly by, “Is it fair to judge someone, anyone, but especially a loved one, by the worst thing they’ve ever done?”
Each of the characters reassesses their friendship with Justin and some reconsider their own ethics in the face of this new information. In a world that wants to lean into stark distinctions between right and wrong, these characters consider the possibility of nuance. Faced with the worst of circumstances, the film does a good job illustrating alternative takes within the group and the kinds of conversations that would naturally spring out of that kind of scenario.
The film feels raw and true, but watching it explore the varied emotional reactions of the characters, I had an unusual sensation. Often I’ll criticize feature films for overstaying their welcome, but from Bystanders I wanted 20 more minutes of running time. I wanted characters to breathe for a few extra beats, for scenes to run long, to let the excellent performances and emotional impact linger.
That’s not to say Bystanders isn’t totally worth seeing. As it leaves you wanting more, it also leaves you thinking. The film marks Koumbie as a new voice in cinema from this part of the country. She and Taylor Olson — both creative and life partners — are a seriously talented and hard-working power couple. I can’t wait to see what they both do next.