Review: Rising Brit star George MacKay is the standout in Duane Hopkins’ ‘Bypass’

VENICE – Looking scrawny and sallow compared to his 2013 appearances in Kevin Macdonald”s underrated YA novel adaptation “How I Live Now” and Proclaimers musical “Sunshine on Leith,” George MacKay is the standout in Duane Hopkins” UK Horizons entry “Bypass” here at Venice. “Bypass” sees Brit-on-the-rise MacKay in loosely similar territory to his other 2013 release, Paul Wright”s dour, artful “For Those In Peril,” in which he also played an almost completely friendless and increasingly desperate youth isolated from his family, though there the similarities between the two films end.

MackKay is a compelling presence as the lead here. In fact, we should really start referring to him as reliably compelling, given his current hit rate. The aforementioned three 2013 releases (plus sports comedy “Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson”) saw him nominated for the British Academy and London Film Critics” Circle”s Rising Star awards, but the young actor is yet to really break through in America, despite supporting turns in Daniel Craig top-lined war drama “Defiance” and Clive Owen melodrama “The Boys Are Back.” Having thrown himself into the role and lost two stone to play Tim in “Bypass,” is this his crossover moment?

Probably not — though that's not a criticism of MacKay's performance, which is very good. He's entirely believable as a sickly impoverished working class teenager forced to look after his younger sister when his older brother and de facto parent figure goes to prison. An intriguing element of the drama which is also absolutely central to its politics is showing the knock on effect that ill-health can have on other problems like debt and unemployment — it is the exponential, cumulative effect of being affected by all of these issues at once that is underestimated by the disparate government bodies tasked with helping people tackle them. Tim is ill, we don't know in quite what way, but it's something which is clearly worsening, and yet circumstances conspire to prevent Tim from prioritizing his health.

“Bypass” is built around an old chestnut: is morality relative? Stealing is wrong, but if you're stealing to feed your starving family, then that might be a lesser wrong. There is also a hefty side-helping of doubt here about what right society has to demand someone like Tim play by its rules, when it has so comprehensively shut him out and undervalued his life and potential contribution. The Venice Competition film that this echoes thematically is “99 Homes,” which takes a different approach in making a broad, brightly-colored emotional rollercoaster on roughly the same theme, though “99 Homes” will likely prove more accessible to the people it seeks to represent than “Bypass.”

But it's heartening to see a film that presents the limited range of options available to people like Tim as just that: limited. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach is clearly an impossibility for someone in Tim's position. He doesn't have the luxury of being able to step back from the a nightmare composed of debt, failing health and responsibilities way beyond his maturity in order to breathe and plan. He can only hustle.

When Tim tries to pay off some of his family's debt using a wad of cash that he has painstakingly managed to scrabble together, he's informed that he'll need to bring in the correct payment slip and the the payment cannot be accepted. This isn't a mere inconvenience — Tim's struggle to get this cash together has used up all his reserves. Throwing it back in his face for bureaucratic reasons feels at this point like the equivalent of telling a half-dead man who has just completed a marathon that he has to go around again because he wore the wrong race bib. It's all part of a system that by design or indifference consistently conspires to set as many traps as possible for the economic underclass.

On balance have to say I preferred Hopkin's similarly socially minded Cotswolds-set 2003 debut, “Better Things” to “Bypass.” Working in a similar register, for “Better Things,” Hopkins wrote 150 unconnected scenes, before fitting them together into a narrative that has through-lines, but doesn't easily fit into a traditional three-act structure. The story beats of “Bypass” feel a little more conventional (one lead negotiating dodgy drug dealers, pregnancy scares, a police chase). Possibly mindful of the aim of creating a film with broader distribution potential, it feels like “Bypass” incorporates elements of a more commercial outlook with elements of an uncompromising art-first approach, to mixed effect.

Re-teaming with producer Samm Haillay whom he met studying film at Northumbria University for a nine week shoot, Hopkins has worked hard to ensure “Bypass” is a technically highly skilled film, particularly considering the short time frame within which everything was achieved. In my ways, its technical achievement may, unfortunately, serve to hold the audience at arm's length. The artfully desaturated urban landscapes, numerous slow motion sequences and extreme, almost alien close ups of faces combine to forge a distinctive distancing aesthetic.

Hopkins' style visually describes very well indeed the alienation that the characters experience, but here's the rub: it also distances us emotionally from their experiences. Unlike the thematically comparable Kelly Reichardt film “Wendy & Lucy,” you're never allowed to forget you're watching a film. I think that's why I found it easier while watching “Bypass” to admire the actors' performances and the work that had gone into how the film looks than I did to become naturally caught up in the characters' journeys.

Joining a strong field for consideration by Ann Hui's Horizons Jury, “Bypass” is laudable in a number of ways, without quite managing to build up the head of steam necessary to push past laudable and into the territory of great.