As living through the pandemic has dramatically deepened our already burgeoning well of social anxiety, it’s easy to start seeing reflections of this reality everywhere. Just recently, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby set its farcical construction on the teetering edge of a panic attack, treating its otherwise hilarious setup with the gravity of a horror film. Andrew Gaynord’s All My Friends Hate Me is clued into this wavelength as well, but in a much more unusual, and much more British, way. Its humor is rooted in the dry cringe comedy exemplified by Bain and Armstrong’s Peep Show, while stylistically approaching the genre-bending of Edgar Wright’s Spaced, a slice-of-life precursor to the go-for-broke parodies of his Cornetto trilogy. Here, there’s a relatively down-to-earth comedy about navigating awkward friendship dynamics wrapped inside the box of a paranoid thriller. Pete, played by the film’s co-writer Tom Stourton, is a well-meaning but timid guy, celebrating a birthday weekend at a wealthy estate with a group of his old university friends whose aggressive pranks and raucous partying push him well past his comfort zone. To make matters worse, they seem to have picked up a stranger at the pub named Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), who dominates the party with his mere presence while being mercilessly antagonistic to the birthday boy and suspiciously jotting notes in his notebook. The cherry on top is the presence of Claire (Antonia Clarke), Pete’s ex-girlfriend who, according to the group, had attempted suicide just after their breakup and is not as okay as she seems.
This chaotic brew forms the setup for events that play out on a principle reminiscent of Tommy DeVito’s testing of Henry Hill in Goodfellas: “I’m funny how? Funny like a clown?” Like Hill, Pete never quite knows when the switch gets flipped, and that thin veil between playfulness and menace slips into a murky uncertainty. The script relishes in this discomfort, wrenching grim humor from the anxious mental gymnastics racing across Tom Stourton’s face as he tries to navigate his friends’ gaslighting to get to the root of the mystery at hand. And “mystery” is the right word, as the aforementioned genre-bending strings things along in the mode of a serious psychological thriller until a parlor room style reveal, which culminates in both the funniest scene of the film and its most dramatic. By the end, then, All My Friends Hate Me’s off-kilter framework is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, its toned-down realism makes for a breath of fresh air contrasted with the bombast of comparable dark comedy thrillers like 2019’s Ready or Not, but at the same time, it runs the risk of alienating a good part of its audience by staking a weird type of middle ground that, just like its hero, never entirely finds its footing. Ultimately, there’s something charming in its abrasive oddness, and in its slight earnest streak hiding behind acerbic layers. You just have to be willing to play its uncomfortable little mind games to get there.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.