Films that are character studies often succeed or fail on how insufferable a viewer finds the main character. Though films obviously don’t have to necessarily be about “likeable” characters, it’s hard to maintain an audience’s interest if the main character isn’t worth investing interesting in. For the first half-hour of It Was You Charlie, the first feature from writer/director Emmanuel Shirinian, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stick with its suicidal, sad-sack protagonist. However, I’m glad I did because while It Was You Charlie isn’t a great movie, it features an interesting twist on redemptive character studies that might make it worth a watch if you’re into this type of film.
Abner (Michael D. Cohen) is a diminutive man in his early 40s with a hairline of someone in their late 50s (If Warner Bros. ever made another Batman movie featuring the Penguin, Cohen would be a good replacement for Danny DeVito). When he is first introduced he is a suicidal graveyard-shift doorman whose apartment is as empty as you’d expect a lonely, middle-aged man’s apartment to be. Abner is so unhappy because he was once an art professor who was in love with one of his much-younger students, Madeline (Anna Hopkins). During Abner’s fortieth birthday party two years ago, Madeline told him that she had been dating Abner’s younger, taller, and more handsome brother, Tom (Hannibal’s Aaron Abrams). This revelation led to Abner giving up on life because of his deep-rooted jealousy of his brother. We later find out that the brothers attempted to reconcile on Abner’s next birthday, but Tom didn’t show up for their yearly tradition of seeing On The Waterfront (which gives the film its title) because Madeline, his now-wife, went into labor. A furious Abner went for a long drive to blow off steam, which resulted in a horrific car accident that he survived but haunts him to this day.
Abner’s depressing life begins to change when a pretty blonde taxi driver in a yellow beret begins stalking him and pushing herself into his life. This Thoreau-quoting dream gal is named Zooey (Emma Fleury), because if you’re making a movie with a manic pixie dream girl you might as well give her the same name as Zooey Deschanel. If that was the intention by Shirinian it was thankfully a misleading one, because Zooey isn’t here to serve the typical role of “spunky female helps troubled male turn his sad life around.”
The question is whether or not you’re willing to stick with it long enough to understand why such a miserable character like Abner acts the way that he does. In all honesty, I almost shut the film off after the first half hour because I thought he was such a sour character that I didn’t care much for how his conflict resolved. But then I realized that Abner’s absurd jealousy – I mean, what rational person could be angry at anyone for skipping out on a movie when his wife is in labor? – was not the character arc I was supposed to be following. I’m not sure why patience almost gave out on me, but I’m glad it ultimately didn’t.
Nonetheless, there are several things about the film that leave a lot to be desired. It isn’t clear exactly what takes place in Abner’s head and how those situations would play out in reality. Also, Alon Nashman is cast in a thankless role as one of Abner’s co-workers who is likewise mentally unstable, but his outbursts have little to do with the narrative and don’t really belong in the film. If they’re meant to serve as a counterpoint to Abner’s problems, they fall flat. If they’re meant to pad the runtime of this short 80 minute film, well, I guess they do their job. There also is very little comedy in this supposed “dark comedy” (even by dark comedy standards), which might be why I had trouble getting into the film in the first place.
There is a cathartic joy in the final 15 minutes of It Was You Charlie that shows that Shirinian has great promise as a director of indie dramas. There are also some beautiful shots by Away From Her cinematographer Luc Montpellier. So while It Was You Charlie isn’t a knockout and takes some time to get into, it offers an examination of a curious lead character and thankfully defies the genre conventions that it at first appears to be succumbing to.
RATING: Despite my initial reactions to the opening, It Was You Charlie offers several narrative surprises that make it worth a watch if you enjoy character studies (5.5/10).
It Was You Charlie will open on VOD on September 23 and at Cinema Village in New York City on September 26.