You’d have to go back — WAY back — to find a New York tale as sweet and uplifting as “The Outside Story.”
It’s the cinema’s first bon bon of 2021, a slight but unexpected delight.
Writer-director Casimir Nozkowski’s debut feature takes the simplest of conceits and a very engaging star turn by Brian Tyree Henry and spins it into an ode to a uniquely Big Apple take on neighborliness and human connection.
Henry, the best part of “Godzilla vs. Kong” and a winning presence in “If Beale Street Could Talk” (and TV’s “Atlanta”), plays a video editor for Turner Classic Movies, the go-to guy when a film star dies and the channel needs a moving and career-spanning “In Memoriam” tribute. We meet him on what has to be his worst day ever.
Charles just broke up with the righteous and gorgeous lawyer Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green). He’s stressed by prepping an elderly movie star’s premature obituary. And he’s “stuck” — as in a former documentary filmmaker mired in a “job” that’s not really his “calling.”
He’s stuck in a lot of other ways, it turns out — in habits, routines and the myopic, cocooned life he’s made in his Manhattan brownstone apartment, which no one can convince him to leave.
The word isn’t used, which is a wise choice because it would utterly take over the film. But Charles is something of an agoraphobic. He doesn’t go “out” the way he used to, and in a city where anything can be delivered, he doesn’t need to.
But circumstances and one delivered meal too many conspire to lock him out of that apartment. Charles spends an entire day learning that “no man is an island,” even one who’s attempted to be just that.
His dilemma? He’s stuck on his stoop, no shoes, no way into his second floor flat. He’s seen Andre (Michael Cyril Creighton) in the hall. Today he has to learn Andre’s name, because Andre can buzz him into the building. He has to make nice because Andre’s window opens onto the fire escape that leads down to Charles’ window. If he wants to try and get in that way, with his delivered meal cooling off and his boss sending frantic texts for this “In Memoriam” that TCM will need any minute now, Andre’s got to be the good neighbor Charles has was.
That is the first meeting in a day full of “firsts” for reclusive, maybe a little “on the spectrum” Charles. And this being a “New York story,” you KNOW there’s going to be an edge.
Andre has house guests from Norway. Turns out he’s a swinger. Charles has to transit the fire escape without looking like a pervert as he passes the window of the tween piano prodigy (Asia Kate Dillon) just upstairs from him. He’s got to talk the ticket-crazed traffic cop (Sunita Mani) out of thinking he’s a burglar, and then out of writing a ticket for his ex-girlfriend’s Jeep.
There are UPS deliveries and more angry texts from the boss, a dying cell phone, the occasional “scene” in the ugliest definition of that word, and the odd friendly word from the older lady who sits on the stoop next door (Lynda Gravatt). Sara is her name. No, Charles didn’t know her either. Not before today.
The laughs are New York touchy — accidentally confronting the person Isha cheated with and causing a huge fight with that lover’s lover, water balloon bombing kids, the shrill failed actress/mom living through that piano-playing tween.
The relatable moments include the battery death of a cell phone. No sense offering him a land line. “I don’t ‘know’ my boss’s number. I don’t know anybody’s number!” The New York touches include the tuned-in delivery guy who knowingly explains away a price hike in Charles’ favorite sandwich.
“Avocadoes. Blame the cartels!”
And the warm fuzzies are subtle yet almost overwhelming. The New York “romance,” if you want to label this that, that I think “The Outside Story” compares to is that charming “It Could Happen to You,” which paired Bridget Fonda and Nicolas Cage up decades ago, or the Thanksgiving “New York” classic “Pieces of April.” It’s not a city that lends itself to “sweet.”
Charles stuck “Outside” reminds us not just that we’re not alone, no matter how much we want to be, and that in the Big City, the biggest journey can be one of just a few steps on foot crossing a chasm you’ve built in your own head.
MPA Rating: unrated, very PG
Cast: Brian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin-Green, Sunita Mani, Michael Cyril Creighton, Asia Kate Dillon and Lynda Gravatt
Credits: Scripted and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:25