From Gawker to Twitter to your friends' constant online status updates ("Stacy is sooo lovin on 'Bama"), voyeurism has never been as ubiquitous. It's no longer just creepy old men loitering across from heating vents wanting a glimpse or Jimmy Stewart laid up next to his apartment window; it's your sister, your boss, your mom ― all of them are watching your every move. Strange, then, that Mister Foe, a film that centers on a young man with a penchant for telescopic observation, totally avoids the question of technology. Voyeur Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) doesn't even own a computer, and he smashes his cell phone early on, which eliminates any chance of Friend Alerts via iPhone.
Hallam is a traditionalist, a Peeping Tom of the old-fashioned, tree-fort-and-binoculars variety. The habit seems to have something to do with the recent death of his mother, whose suicide leaves Hallam confused, suspicious, and resigned to retreat into an isolated world of quiet observation. Hallam's two favorite subjects, his frigid father (Ciarán Hinds) and young, requisitely evil stepmother (Clare Forlani), offer few consolations or answers. After continued harassment from his mother's predatory replacement, Hallam leaves to roam the rooftops of Edinburgh, setting his sights on a young woman who looks strikingly similar to his mother. A relationship develops between them (this is a kind of romantic comedy, after all), and her support aids him through eventual realizations about his mother’s death and himself as an individual.
Unfortunately, director David Mackenzie never convincingly grapples with the film’s central metaphor, Hallam’s voyeurism. While it's clearly symptomatic of the trauma from his mother’s death, it’s hard to say whether his snoopery is a malady to be cured or a unique characteristic to be celebrated. That it comes off as more lighthearted than creepy is a testament to the charms of the film and its cast.
Throughout Mister Foe, Hallam works to unravel the question of his mother's death, unsure of his suspicions about his stepmother. As in some rustic parable, Hallam, abandoned by the father, rages against age and corruption. At times, he even dons an animal headdress and Braveheart-blue face paint to incarnate the spirit of the Lowlands. The rural, rolling manor of Hallam’s home, left to him by his mother (his dad and stepmom want to put in condos), is another reminder of his essential purity, rooted in the past.
In the end, Hallam grows up, or matures, or something. But he's a more powerful and sympathetic character when he's jumping from rooftop to rooftop and charging through the countryside, a twisted force of wronged youth unable to compromise with life.