Everyone has a “night bus story”. Simon Baker, it seems, has lots. Proving that you don’t need a substantial budget to make a substantial movie, Baker launches his career at this year’s London Film Festival with this curious little portmanteau of urban life, which sadly runs out of fuel before it manages to reach its final destination.
The setting, as you can no doubt guess from the title, is a night bus, one that’s traveling through the perpetually rainy streets of East London on a Friday night. Over the course of a single journey, we watch as different people board and then disembark, each one weighed down by their own problems; some minor, others substantial.
And that’s it… no unnecessary grandstanding, no big reveals. The sole focus of Baker’s film is the commuters, their situations, and of course the vehicle that has brought them all together. Dominic Bartels’ camera acts like a literal fly on the wall at times; attached to different parts of the bus’s exterior and revelling in the intoxicating allure of the city lights at night-time. At others it feels like an actual passenger, stepping on to the bus unseen and then gliding between the two decks, acting as a silent observer to the hushed carnage that’s unfolding.
From the drunks loudly voicing their own inconsequential opinions to the jaded couples, young and old, quietly bickering over various trivialities, Baker takes a series of intimate snapshots that together form a collage of contemporary life. Some fizzle with energy, while others, unfortunately, struggle to gather any sort of momentum. Of course, if you’ve ever taken a night bus journey of your own, you will have fun recognising certain behaviours from within the mélange of different personalities. Although you do wonder whether it’s a tad too convenient that they have all managed to converge on the same bus.
What can’t be argued is that the mostly improvised performances of the unknown ensemble are universally brilliant. There’s a natural quality to them all, which allows the film’s tone to effectively shift between moments of wit and misery. Interestingly, the character whose story assimilates them both is the driver’s, superbly played with an constant stream of deadpanned frustration by Wayne Goddard, perfectly personifying how arduous a task shipping London’s drunken louts from one place to another must be.
At 90 minutes long it does eventually begin to drag. Though he walks (read: drives) a fine line between humour and heartache during the first half, Baker’s desire for a big affecting statement that makes a lasting impact clouds the latter; with the sudden morbid voiceover of a young Polish passenger feeling particularly misjudged.
It’s impossible to not be impressed by the writer/director/producer’s passion though. Funded off of his own back, at great financial risk, in order to retain complete creative control, Baker exhibits a devotion to his craft that’s complemented by keen focus and an obvious desire to tell the stories that interest him in the way that he wants. If Night Bus gets him the attention he deserves, his career is certain to head in the right direction.