'Sylvio': Film Review | SXSW 2017

Eric LaPlante
You might go ape for it.

This comic character study of an anthropomorphic gorilla monkeys around in ways both pleasurable and aggravating.

Users of the semi-defunct social media app Vine might recall the account, run by Baltimore-based artist Albert Birney, titled "Simply Sylvio." Boasting half a million followers and over 800 posts, this collection of short videos details the adventures of one Sylvio Bernardi, a gorilla attempting, as the tagline says, "to live a simple life" among humans. He's all primate, but there's no cutting-edge Planet of the Apes-like motion capture here. Sylvio is quite conspicuously a man-in-a-suit — a walking, running, stumbling and always-grunting (because simians don't speak 'people') sight gag that plays quite hilariously in six-second snippets. 

But at 80 minutes? Well, give Birney and his co-director Kentucker Audley credit for doing everything they can, in the feature-length, Kickstarter-funded Sylvio, to keep the jokes consistently inventive and the counteracting pathos on point. Sylvio (credited as himself) is no longer just a bit of quick-to-digest visual drollery, but a full-fledged character with aching wants and needs. As Birney, Audley and co-writer Meghan Doherty have it, Sylvio is a frustrated corporate drone — a debt collector who uses a vocal synthesizer to none-too-threateningly chat with the clients he has to shake down — who dreams of nothing more than being a puppeteer.

For years, Sylvio has been making a homespun series of videos titled "The Quiet Times With Herbert Herpels," in which a bald, mustached handpuppet with a Mona Lisa smile does everything from cook a Christmas feast to prepare toast (the latter in excruciating real-time). Sylvio's chance to more publicly show off his talents arrives when he goes to collect a debt from Al Reynolds (Audley), a Baltimore resident who just so happens to run a very low-rated talk show out of his basement. Silvio helps the ratings spike. But it quickly becomes apparent that Reynolds' viewers prefer to watch this towering anthropoid smash objects (chandeliers, porcelain figurines, what have you) to bits as opposed to bearing his Jim Hensonian heart and soul. Once an animal, always an animal — but does it have to be that way?

At this point, any thinking moviegoer might conceivably wonder if they're being punk'd. And indeed, one of Sylvio's greatest strengths is the ever-present, though never fully verified sense that Birney and Audley are having a long laugh at their audience's expense. There are times, as in almost every deadpan interaction between Sylvio and Al, when the film feels like one of Audley's riotous parody video essays in which he "analyzes" the hidden depths of such neo-cinematic classics as Richie Rich (1994) and Powder (1995). At others, the movie irritates with a sub-Wes Andersonian tweeness, as in a scene in which Sylvio visits the afterlife and plays basketball with a man-sized version of Herbert Herpels. And then there's the squishy, sentimental finale, in which art unconvincingly triumphs over Ignorance. But could that be Birney and Audley's most expert troll — playing these most superficial of emotions straight while letting the absurdity that they revolve around a hipster-wardrobed simian emerge in its own good time?

One thing's for certain: Not even Charles Darwin could fully figure this monkey out.

Cast: Albert Birney, Kentucker Audley, Tallie Medel, Meghan Doherty
Albert Birney, Kentucker Audley
Screenwriters: Albert Birney, Kentucker Audley, Meghan Doherty
Producer: Meghan Doherty

Executive producers: James Belfer, Todd Remis, David Moscow, Jason Dreyer, Kent Osborne, Tanner Beard
Eric Laplante
Albert Birney, Kentucker Audley
Production designer: 
Peter Davis
Matt Baker
Thomas Hughes, Gretchen Lohse
Venue: South by Southwest (Narrative Feature, Visions)
Sales: Film Collaborative

80 minutes