According to the saying, good fences make good neighbors. Unfortunately, fences aren’t easy to come by for people living in an apartment building, even one as pleasant-looking as the Montreal walk-up shared by a trio of singletons in the third film from director Jacob Tierney. (Trivia moment! Tierney once upon a time played the older brother in 1993’s Josh And S.A.M.) Good Neighbors is a darkly comedic thriller with echoes of Shallow Grave and an undercurrent of repressed Canadian rage, and though it comes to an anticlimactic end, it manages a lot with a slow build of unease.
Emily Hampshire stars as a waitress who only seems capable of emotional connection with her cats and a man (Scott Speedman) who’s been left wheelchair-bound by a car accident that killed his wife. Their tentative friendship is gate-crashed by new arrival Jay Baruchel, an elementary-school teacher with no understanding of the pair’s alone-together boundaries. Baruchel, at full awkward twitchiness, makes being well-meaning seem like an assault. Soon he’s trying to date Hampshire and make nice with Speedman, oblivious to just how emotionally unwell the two are.
That slow reveal is Good Neighbors’ finest quality: It finds tension in stilted hallway interactions, unwanted dinner parties, and complaints about the wanderings of pets. In the background is the 1995 Quebec referendum vote on whether the province should secede, and a serial killer attacking women in the neighborhood, but the film’s primary antagonist is the building’s chain-smoking, French-speaking alcoholic, a ball of fury who takes her relationship troubles out on her fellow residents. Things go badly, and not only for her—Tierney’s film, based on a novel by Chrystine Brouillet, is something of a rejection of urban communal sentiment, a cautionary tale against getting to know the locals.
While Baruchel provides our entry into this world and is the most overtly sympathetic figure, even he turns out to have a screw or two loose, letting Hampshire walk all over him while lying to others, claiming they’re engaged. Hampshire makes “future cat lady” into something dire. But Speedman, coming off a strong turn in Barney’s Version, another Canadian production, walks away with the film. He uses his golden-boy smile and disabled status to get away with often undisguised hostility, which everyone around him is too oblivious or too polite to acknowledge. Given Good Neighbors’ claustrophobic enclosures, he may have a point.