The true pleasure of The Outside Story doesn’t come from its heartwarming message about community or its nostalgic rendering of a mask-less, pre-pandemic New York City, but from Brian Tyree Henry’s exceptional performance in his first big-screen lead role.
A few years ago, Henry awed viewers as Paper Boi, the moody, low-key rapper in Donald Glover’s FX hit Atlanta. He’s continued to excel, stealing scenes and flexing skills in supporting parts in movies from Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk to, more recently, Godzilla vs. Kong. Now, with The Outside Story, Henry not only proves once again that he has range, but that he can carry an entire film.
In this feature debut written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski, Henry becomes Charles, a reclusive documentary filmmaker and video editor nursing a broken heart in his Brooklyn apartment. His girlfriend, Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green), cheated on him and he’s struggling to find a way forward. Should he move on or forgive her and get back together?
As with most of life’s existential queries, the journey to the answer proves far more interesting than the question itself. Charles’ adventure begins when he forgets to tip a delivery person (played by Jordan Carlos, not letting his few moments of screen time go to waste). Their exchange sets the mood for the rest of the film — funny and sardonic with the right dose of sentimentalism.
In an attempt to redeem himself, Charles runs back upstairs, grabs more money and chases the delivery guy down the street. From the camera’s long meditation on the two sets of keys on the entryway table — one to his girlfriend’s car that he promised to move, the other to his apartment — it’s not hard to guess what happens next. When Charles returns home, he realizes he’s grabbed the wrong keys and locked himself out. To make matters worse, he’s on deadline for his day job, which consists of making In Memoriam videos for a classic movie channel.
Charles — known as a shut-in to his friends — spends most of his day trying to get back into his apartment, a feat that requires wit, tenacity and the help of his neighbors. He starts by calling his friend Neil (Matthew Maher), to whom he hopes he gave a spare set of keys, and his landlord Tony (David Zayas), who warns him against going to the locksmith (“You know they make copies of your keys and steal your shit, you know that right?”).
While waiting for one of them to show up, Charles cooks up another plan, and that’s when the real adventure begins. He rings the doorbell of his neighbor, Andre (Michael Cyril Creighton), a prickly man who lives on the top floor. Andre, like most people in the building, doesn’t know Charles as well as he does Isha. “Isha left you,” he says when Charles informs him of the breakup. “Shame, she always signed for my packages and seemed so fun.”
Charles begs Andre to let him into his apartment so he can climb onto the fire escape and see if his window is open. The plan ultimately doesn’t work and instead leads to a confrontation between Charles and Officer Slater (Sunita Mani), a traffic cop despised throughout the neighborhood for her merciless dispensation of parking tickets.
The Outside Story manages to squeeze an impressive amount of drama out of a relatively thin premise and wonted screenplay thanks to its formidably assured cast and gallery of engaging secondary characters. After the failed window scheme and uneasy exchange with Officer Slater, Charles tries to find other means of getting back into his apartment. Along the way, he gets to know the people in his community, including Elena (Olivia Edward), the quiet and wry preteen who lives right above Charles with her eccentric mother, Juliet (Maria Dizzia); Sara (Lynda Gravatt), the warm old woman next door who offers Charles a pair of her deceased husband’s shoes; and Paige (Hannah Bos), a pregnant neighbor whom Charles helps by making chalk drawings on the sidewalk to advertise her stoop sale. These people not only aid our protagonist in his quest to get back into his home; they also offer him different perspectives that enable him to navigate his contradictory and intense feelings about Isha, whose presence looms large despite her brief on-screen appearances.
Each of Charles’ interactions feels like an endearing short film, the cumulative result capturing the kaleidoscopic experience of living in an alluring and chaotic city like New York. Cinematographer Zelmira Gainza’s choice to bathe scenes in a delicate golden hue complements the frenetic vibe by adding a cozy touch. But what really cinches each scene is Henry’s dynamism. His responses to whomever he shares the screen with — an affirmative cock of the head here, a longing gaze there — possess a rare, confident naturalism.
Enjoyable as it is, The Outside Story could have benefited from greater attention to detail and more depth afforded its female characters. We never learn much about Isha except that she is a lawyer and an exceptional neighbor. During an early conversation with Andre, Charles, sounding exasperated, exclaims, “I get it, she was amazing!” That kind of alleged perfection doesn’t make us feel invested in Isha or in the relationship whose rupture haunts the film. (We never even learn how long they had been dating for or what other things they fought about besides Charles never wanting to leave the apartment.) A more nuanced sense of Isha, and of her failed romance with Charles, could have upped the narrative stakes, adding much-needed tension to the pair’s final confrontation.
Nevertheless, the film charms. After more than a year of isolation, Americans, buoyed by the success of the COVID vaccines, are itching to emerge from their homes and reacquaint themselves with their communities. In that way, The Outside Story’s timing couldn’t be more perfect.
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Production companies: Greenmachine Film, Sub-Genre Film
Cast: Brian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin-Green, Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Asia Kate Dillon, Maria Dizzia, Michael Cyril Creighton, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Hannah Bos, Matthew Maher
Writer-director: Casimir Nozkowski
Producers: Casimir Nozkowski, Frank Hall Green, Brian Newman, Joseph Stephans
Executive producers: Cameron O’ Reilly, Evan Thayer, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff
Director of photography: Zelmira Gainza
Production designer: Estee Braverman
Costume designer: Evren Catlin
Editor: Eyal Dimant
Music: Alexander Trimpe
Casting: Stephanie Holbrook