Brian Tyree Henry goes from second string actor to star in The Outside Story. He’s probably best known from the TV series Atlanta, which has acted as a finishing school for talents including LaKeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz. More recently you might have seen Henry’s face in Godzilla vs. Kong, as a nerdy conspiracy theorist.
Writer/director Casimir Nozowski also gets an upgrade, having made a number of New York-centric shorts and directed a reality foodie show – and you can see the influence of both in The Outside Story.
After a year of various levels of lockdowns, Henry is playing a character who’ll be familiar to many, as the video editor whose laptop-based job has reinforced his natural homebody tendencies. He’s become a “shut-in”, and as the action gets underway the chickens have come home to roost. His wants-more-than-this girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green) has left him, leaving Charles (Henry) bereft.
Things go from bad to worse when Charles shuts himself out of his block while paying a food delivery guy, just the first in a series of mini-disasters which make The Outside Story look like it’s going to be all about one man’s very bad day – he gets a parking ticket, his friend with a spare key fails to come through, the landlord shows up with a key but Charles is temporarily not there, and he’s in his socks the whole time, and they’re polka-dotted. And so on. Bad stuff.
Meanwhile in flashback, we get the story of his relationship with Isha from soup to nuts, from meeting at a party to the day she told him she’d been making out with someone else.
It seems like a one-thing-after-another movie – freeform, good-natured, funny, relaxed and full of quirks (the delivery guy’s antsiness, the ticketing cop’s fuck-you attitude) before, metaphorically, Frank Capra arrives and it moves from being documentary-like into something with a form we can recognise, as the shut-out shut-in meets his neighbours out on the street and learns some of the joys of community. The pregnant woman having a stoop sale down the road, the widow next door, the piano-playing wise-beyond-her-years girl from upstairs and the ballsy cop (among others) teach Charles a big lesson of the It’s a Wonderful Life sort.
Nozowski’s background in guerrilla TV-reality shows like Food Warriors influences his shooting style – fast, lean, clean – and it really helps keep the pace up, which becomes much more important as things become more familiar. Another big plus is the performances from a gifted ensemble, most obviously the striking Sonequa Martin-Green as the one who got away, Sunita Mani as the neighbourhood cop and Olivia Edward as the funny kid upstairs with a bonkers actor mother. It’s a bonus, too, that they’re faces who aren’t too familiar, keeps things breezy.
A nice touch is Charles’s job. He makes video obituaries for stars who aren’t dead yet. The fictitious Gardner St James acts as an (entirely unnecessary) Maguffin, with Charles needing to get back in to his apartment to put the finishing touches to St James’s obit before the ailing actor croaks. Also on Charles’s list, we see, are Sean Connery (aah) and Michael Douglas. Mention is also made of Lindsay Lohan. Eeek.
By the end The Outside Story has become incredibly familiar and unashamedly corny. But corny is OK, and so is nice, especially when so much work has been done to build up the goodwill. Henry’s expressive face – the word “simpatico” used to be the go-to, now it’s “relatable” – means we’re on board with his predicament and rooting for good outcomes even when Charles is being really stupid.
The Outside Story – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021