Brian Tyree Henry shines in a rare leading role
Over the last year we’ve all felt like Charles. We’ve found a routine in being a homebody that, more or less, can get us through one day and on to the next. A routine wear dressing for work means changing out of pajamas into jeans and shirt, with a comfy old man sweater to tie it all together. Don’t forget about the socks we walk around the house in. Even though we’re home, we can’t go barefoot. This is a workspace after all. The Outside Story isn’t specifically about life during a pandemic, but it’s almost impossible to spend a day in the life of Charles, an introvert at heart forced to spend a day interacting with the people and world he has sequestered himself from, and not think about the effects of being homebound for a year. For the most part, The Outside Story is an amiable movie about people trying to get through this day and realizing the thing that helped us through yesterday may not be the thing that helps us make it to tomorrow.
Brian Tyree Henry gets a much deserved leading man role as Charles, a documentary filmmaker turned editor for TCM. Charles keeps to himself to the point where most people only know him as the boyfriend of the more outgoing Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green). That used to be fine with Charles. But, having recently broken up with Isha and locking himself out of his apartment, Charles is something of a stranger in his own neighborhood. With a looming work deadline and phone on the verge of dying, all Charles can do is hope for someone to come by with a spare key soon. In the meantime, he’ll spend more time with his neighbors in one day than he has in all the years he’s lived there combined.
Charles, and the film, is at its most relaxed in these small moments of connection. From helping a pregnant woman with a stoop sale to the young girl who lives in the apartment above Charles to the punk kids who throw water balloons at Charles, Charles gets to engage. When he’s in his apartment, he’s content with his passivity. He’s at peace by himself. Or is he? At the heart of the script, by writer and director Casimir Nozkowski, is the idea that we need each other. Human connection is irreplaceable, no matter how hard we try. It’s a simple idea, but executed well. The film underplays it, but there’s an irony to Charles making In Memoriam video packages as part of his job, celebrating the lives of others while being content with his own relative anonymity.
The film operates on a general level of pleasantness, and doesn’t waver too far from it. Even when conflicts arise, they’re usually dealt with quickly and gently. One part of the story that doesn’t quite work is a running bit between Charles and Officer Slater (Sunita Mani). Officer Slater patrols Charles’ block, relishing in issuing parking tickets. It’s played for comedy, but watching an officer antagonize a neighborhood (and seeming to enjoy it) doesn’t land the way it’s intended. Mani and Henry have nice chemistry, which saves most of their scenes together. But it’s hard to watch these scenes and not feel a twinge of worry for Charles’ safety. At first I tried to look past it, but it came up enough that it became a distraction. It made me wonder what the film would’ve been like had it chosen a different path.
In the end, the film lives and dies by its niceness and I can’t fault a film for trying to inject some positivity into the world. The film can be a bit saccharine at times, but for the most part Nozkowski finds the sweet spot. Sometimes watching people get along and try to help each other is enough, and right now that’s enough for me to recommend The Outside Story.
The Outside Story is currently available to rent.
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