THE OUTSIDE STORY— 3 STARS
LESSON #1: ALWAYS REMEMBER YOUR KEYS— I don’t even have to ask. I know we’ve all done what sets off the basis of The Outside Story. We’ve all locked ourselves out of something, be it our car or home. It’s happened once and likely bound to happen again with our distracted, busybody tendencies, much to the chagrin of the “everything happens for a reason” crowd and the doses of public shame we feel and receive for making that habitual mistake. The educational reminder is obvious. As common an occurrence as it may be, though, the old saying of “the devil is in the details” applies.
LESSON #2: LIFE’S LITTLE INCONVENIENCES— What I mean is what were the conditions of the who, what, when, and where? Were we locked out indoors or outdoors? If it was the latter, how was the weather? Was it day or night? Crowded or isolated? What possessions did we have or not have? What outlets or solutions were available? Greatest of all, what mental state were we in when it comes to comfort, safety, or urgency?
The sliding scale severity of the answers to those questions creates the embarrassing memory and the “have I got a story for you” yarn we tell your friends and family later of the past predicament. This simple premise can have any number of interesting connective circumstances, from nightmarish to adventurous. With a sunny glow of lifted spirits and healed flaws, the batch of life’s little inconveniences dealt to Brian Tyree Henry’s Charles Young enchant a bevy of wry smiles in The Outside Story.
Once again, it all starts with the conditions. Charles is a freelance video editor living in a handsome Brooklyn brownstone apartment on a bright autumn day. His current gig is making eulogies for people who aren’t dead yet for customers like Turner Classic Movies. Pinned to his computer and phone, Charles has let work contain and consume him, as evident by the cluttered empty food containers strewn all over. Moreover, the gloomy young man is reeling from a recent breakup with his long-time girlfriend Isha, played by Star Trek: Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green. Fill that in accordingly as his mental state for what happens next.
Hopping out shoeless in a housecoat to pay a delivery driver, Charles grabs the wrong keys and finds himself locked out of his place. It’s a nice day in a good neighborhood and he does have his phone where he can make a few calls, but he’s definitely stuck for a bit. His first instinct is buzzing neighbors that he barely knows by name just to get off the street.
LESSON #3: GET TO KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS— This is precisely the kind of situation where one should get to know the people they live next to. Turn the strangers that pass by your door into friends. They can be helpful in moments like this and the resulting gratitude goes a long way in repaying future favors. Add to a culture of neighbors helping neighbors.
Writer-director Casimir Nozkowski, graduating from a career of short films and documentaries for his first feature, populates The Outside Story with a dependable ensemble of small actors playing an appealing array of human discoveries and intersections for Charles. Among them, Spotlight’s Michael Cyril Creighton plays the polyamourous Andre living above him. Character actor Matthew Maher of Gone Baby Gone is the nearby maintenance man buddy with all the keys. Lynda Gravatt of Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a kind gardening senior in the next building over. Better Things child actor Olivia Edward is the lonely homebound kid whose creative imagination yearns to gaze and live beyond it.
Their reactions to Charles and his screwup range from annoyance and guilt to pity and support. All offer a nugget of either wanted or unwanted wisdom. Each of them also brings their own current climate into the moment, allowing a measure of substance to come out of the supporting performances. The biggest scene stealer is the orbiting traffic officer Slater, played by Sunita Mani of Glow. Her sarcastic pushback and tough talk as the long-arm-of-the-law writing her endless citations brings most of the movie’s welcome comedy.
LESSON #4: THE MISTAKES OF THE BROKENHEARTED— All the while, the spectre of Isha isn’t going away for Charles. Much like Kevin Costner’s Billy Chapel character in For Love of the Game, no matter how big of a moment is happening, all Charles can think about is how he screwed up with his girl. Those flickering feelings, played out through edited interludes of their prior relationship, overflow with the present stresses. The man has to consider giving some forgiveness to jealousy while asking for his own. From a symbolism standpoint, here we are in The Outside Story trying to open doors instead of closing them.
Through it all, this earnest comedy was an excellent lead opportunity for the superb Brian Tyree Henry. Nozkowski’s movie unlocks a lighter side far away from the dramatic hammering he’s impressed us all with in the likes of If Beale Street Could Talk and Widows over the years. The Charles character could have been a one-note part of someone impatient getting their dependency comeuppance, not unlike any of us who’ve made the same mistake and need the reminders to unplug and sit tight.
Instead, the actor and the director add light character details like a cat allergy and a fear of heights that come into play in subtle fashions dialed down from something slapstick or outrageous that would be employed with a louder take on this simple premise. Imagine Melissa McCarthy instead of Brian Tyree Henry and you get my drift. Quirks aside, Henry allows himself to play off of the surrounding people he encounters with warmth to grow where, by the end, this character didn’t just have a moment. He had himself a day. You will too with The Outside Story.