Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The Outside Story, writer-director Casimir Nozkowski’s agreeable feature debut, shapes up as a fairly typical indie shaggy-dog story: a mildly dissolute creative type finds himself in a mildly humorous jam that resolves itself over the course of the film in a mildly heartwarming way, preferably – and here actually – in Brooklyn. The tone seems reminiscent of wry outer-borough diversions like Wild Canaries and Fort Tilden. Humor and humanism are abundant. But Nozkowski’s Brooklyn is short on the grit and jeopardy required to make The Outside Story a truly outstanding New York movie. Still, it’s good.
What elevates the film is the enormously talented Bryan Tyree Henry, who played the grumpy rapper Paper Boi in Donald Glover’s brilliant Atlanta. Henry’s nuanced and naturalistic performance as Charles adds dimension to the iconic figure of the silly and eccentric but very real New Yorker. He’s a despondent, reclusive documentary filmmaker reduced to composing film obituaries of living notables expected to die for Turner Classic Movies, forced by his own mistake – he locks himself out of his apartment – to embrace the world around him. The quirky morbidity of his vocation is quietly compatible with the moment, and casts a gentle pall over pre-pandemic proceedings that would otherwise seem too perky.
Nozkowski’s instinct for flirting with but then skirting the clichés of the genre – sometimes just by a calculated hair – keeps the audience at once comfortable and curious. What’s got Charles down is his girlfriend’s transient infidelity, but it’s he who is being unreasonable. The take-out delivery guy is a jerk rather than the more predictable mensch. Charles’s landlord is a bit, but not too much, of a prick. Charles does, it’s true, encounter a cop, an old lady, and young teenage girl, each with a heart of gold and an axe to grind, but these familiar cinematic phenomena are at least plausible. If there are a few too many epiphanies to keep the story strictly real, maybe the time is right for some extra good cheer.
The Outside Story, written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2020.