It Was You Charlie is now available on iTunes.
The short film seems like something of a right of passage for many filmmakers. Film school is littered with the reels of shorts of varying pretension and it is a learning process for the filmmaker to determine how best to construct and communicate his story. That is not to belittle the short as merely a training ground or classroom exercise, for being able to boil down one’s idea into a contained capsule requires some degree of talent and artistry. However, the short and feature film are like cousins that only see each other on occasion. Expanding to a longer length is not simply an exercise in stretching, but rather an expansion of vision. In It Was You Charlie, writer-director Emmanuel Shirinian shows promise, but still hasn’t quite made the jump.
When we meet Abner (Michael D. Cohen) he is the model of depression. A small man, in all senses of the word, that trudges through life carrying a burden many times larger than himself. He revels in his solitude, working the graveyard shift as a doorman, a stranger to the world. His past is afloat with possibilities, but his own inner demons, jilted by love, and haunted by an accident, leave his present struggling for purpose. But then Abner meets Zoe (Emma Fleury), and things begin to change.
It Was You Charlie would very much like to carry the moniker of dark comedy, but it fails to adequately grasp the nature of its desired outcome. A dark comedy is not merely sadness or hatred mixed with comedy, but rather recognition of the complexity of the world and a chance to revel in it fully. Life is an endlessly messy thing in which laughter and tears often accompany one another, and humor can be derived from the most unexpected of places. A great dark comedy does not shoot for that label, but rather it simply acquires it through its own depiction of events. It tells its story the way it must be told, unafraid of the potentially taboo nature of its very existence. It Was You Charlie misunderstands this point and instead simply hops between the depressive and attempts at humor, leaving the film unbalanced and incomplete.
To the film’s credit, it never betrays any more of its story than it apparently wants to. The viewer is left in the dark, only receiving bits and pieces of Abner’s life as Shirinian sees fit. The problem with this method is that it places so much more stress on the final reveal than the plotcan actually support. By holding its cards so closely to its chest and dragging the viewer along with the unspoken promise that it will all be worth it, it is only delaying the inevitable disappointment. For this is no Las Vegas level magic act, in which the “ta-da” leaves mouths agape. It is much more akin to a child’s talent show, where the audience politely claps as the cards come tumbling from out of the magician’s sleeve. As the puzzle becomes more complex, the film itself begins to be preoccupied with identifying all of the right pieces and places character development and strength of story on the back burner.
Thankfully, when the film decides to focus on Abner it finds much more success. Michael D. Cohen communicates the character’s emotions effectively and often in a manner that is surprisingly subtle. Cohen reveals an impressive closeness to the character, as if he has lived Abner’s story to some extent and is simply going through the practiced steps of his past. He moves through life like an anxious and depressed Oompa Loompa, laid off by Wonka and desperately yearning for love. The points of the film that choose to focus exclusively on Abner are its best, and further make the extraneous scenes feel like little more than filler. His interactions with his apartment superintendent and a work colleague add nothing of substance to the story and only serve to distract from the ongoing struggle with depression and inability to properly face reality. They exist like odd flights of fancy or separate short films forced into one another like a misshapen Russian nesting doll.
Perhaps this is just an illustration of the film’s struggle for relevancy. Abner’s story, while containing a somewhat complex exploration of depression and accepting the druthers of life, is still rather shallow. As the film flits off onto one of its tangents, it is hard to not think that its writer-director just doesn’t have that much story to tell. It is as if in his attempt to reach feature length, he just began throwing out every idea he had, hoping that some of it would add to a greater whole. The scenes often exist as if independently from one another, differing in tone and grasp with reality to varying extents. It Was You Charlie has some surface level accomplishments that elevate it past the level of timewaster, but its inability to communicate a cohesive and compelling story over the course of its lean runtime leaves it grasping for actual cinematic success. The more you think about it, the more it falls apart.
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