Jamie Bell makes the best of a bad situation as Hallam, the titular teenage protagonist of Mister Foe, whose anger, resentment and paranoia drive him from his father's remote Scottish Highlands estate to the streets of Edinburgh in search of solace. Hallam's mother recently drowned in the loch behind the house, the apparent victim of a freak boating accident, and his dad (Ciarán Hinds) has moved on and married his former secretary Verity (Claire Forlani), whom he was seeing before his wife's untimely passing and whom Hallam believes is a gold-digging hooker responsible for mom's death. Bell conveys the kid's withdrawn distrust through restless body language and wary glares, while at the same time flashing steely, cocky defiance during Hallam's confrontations with dad and Verity, as well as nonchalant, gregarious charm in the company of others. His performance has a multifaceted vitality to it, equal parts wounded puppy dog and plucky fighter, and might have carried director David Mackenzie's follow-up to Asylum (adapted from a novel by Peter Jinks) were it not for the fact that the film doesn't treat its subject as a real person, but rather as a term paper-ready vessel for narrative themes of voyeurism and Freudian longing.
You see, Hallam's main hobby is peeking into others' windows, and once he goes to Edinburgh, he becomes obsessed with a woman who's the spitting image of dearly departed mom. Moreover, when alone in his treehouse - which features a wall-size photo of his mother's beatific face - Hallam likes to draw circles around his nipples with mom's lipstick while wearing one of her dresses and a hat made from a dead skunk. Hallam clearly has problems, yet these fanciful attributes primarily indicate that Hallam isn't an authentic individual but merely a fictional invention saddled with a supposedly profound Oedipal complex, an impression furthered by the slightly unreal, fairy tale atmosphere that Mackenzie firmly establishes from the outset via a whimsical cartoon-bird credit sequence. After abruptly sleeping with his hated stepmother - a contrived act that demonstrates his twisted feelings for maternal figures - Hallam takes off for Edinburgh, where he gets a menial kitchen porter position at a hotel thanks to mom-lookalike human resources manager Kate (Sophia Myles).
Hallam soon begins climbing to Kate's roof to watch her through her apartment's skylights, and finds a new elevated clubhouse home in the hotel's attic, which conveniently gives him a binocular-assisted view into Kate's residence as well as a space to prance about in his skunk chapeau. Warm cinematographic hues envelop Hallam during happy times and dark, cold grays enshroud him during the more morose episodes of his perverted adventure in the big city, which involves spying on Kate clipping her toenails and, soon afterwards, shagging a married man with a combination of agony and ecstasy on her contorted face. Yet while Hallam is a peeping tom, he's only a semi-deviant one, since Mackenzie casts this compulsion - which doesn't conclude with self-gratification but does entail feverishly scribbling notes in his diary - as the byproduct of alienation and confused desire. When not covertly observing his object of affection, Hallam merrily performs his professional duties, at one point extolling the joy of dishwashing to Kate with an enthusiasm that would be preposterous if not for Bell's endearing lack of guile.
Unfortunately, such small, authentic moments are few and far between, thanks to director Mackenzie's aggravating decision to inundate the proceedings with indie rock tracks (from, among others, Franz Ferdinand and The Pastels) that intrusively accentuate every one of the character's emotional vacillations. For all its tense relationships and tortured feelings, Mister Foe offsets its realism with a strange fantasyland vibe, and thus it's only a matter of time before Hallam and Kate's relationship ludicrously morphs into something knottier than simply employer-employee. Though this development rings as false as most of the script's twists, Myles' mixture of radiance, toughness and vulnerability - matched by Bell's chaotic uncertainty - almost sells the script's cutesy earnestness and quirky bathos. But puzzlingly, despite the story being rooted in the issue of voyeurism, director Mackenzie only cursorily explores this compulsion as it relates to his screwy psyche, and wholly fails to implicate the movie's viewers as somehow kindred spirits to his protagonist. Instead, Hallam's nocturnal pastime ultimately proves less a telling neurosis than just a plot device that allows Mackenzie to stage situations - such as [spoiler alert] Kate interrogating Hallam over his peeping while having him stand buck naked in the middle of her living room - whose intellectualized sexuality stirs neither the head nor the nether regions.