Managing to get locked out of one’s place of residence is just about one of the most universally relatable human experiences, ranking just beneath breathing air and paying taxes. (If you have never managed to lock yourself out of your place of residence—congratulations, you’ve got your life together more than the rest of us, enjoy looking down on us plebs from your pedestal up high.)
In The Outside Story, this near-universal grievance is expanded into an entire film’s worth of narrative, as Charles (Brian Tyree Henry), a reclusive freelance video editor whose main output involves putting together and regularly updating In Memoriam montages—the videographic equivalent of pre-writing obituaries—manages to lock himself out of his Brooklyn walkup just as an important deadline looms. Regrettably, he’s sans shoes, but he’s got his phone. Charles paradoxically ventures out further into the outside world in the hopes of finding his way back inside. He’s also forced to confront his feelings over his failing relationship with his more extroverted girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green), who showed increasing frustration with Charles’ unwillingness to be more sociable before committing an indiscretion Charles is unable to forgive. Faced with the prospect of Isha actually moving out, Charles is left with a lot of time to think about what he really wants, and if his vision for the future might still include Isha after all.
His apartment misadventure forces him to interact with the neighbors he’s generally avoided. This includes aggrieved upstairs neighbor Andre (Michael Cyril Creighton), who’s 150 percent done with Charles constantly interrupting his own romantic plans with constant requests to be buzzed in, and Officer Slater (Sunita Mani), a type-A ticket-happy traffic cop.
Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski, The Outside Story is one of those small, scrappy first features designed to be as makeable as humanly possible. It’s the sort of film a multi-hyphenate filmmaker rolls uphill Sisyphus-style in order to get a first feature made in an industry that is extremely afraid of giving money to first-time feature filmmakers, even those who have produced a number of acclaimed shorts, as Nozkowski has. And he does a solid job here.
The film itself feels a bit like a particularly sunny take on a traditional neorealist structure: a very simple, realistic premise that leads to a rather loose plot that involves the protagonist going from one meaningful interaction with a stranger to another in ways that are either directly or tangentially related to solving the initial dilemma. Umberto D. scrambles around in search of rent money. In Bicycle Thieves, a father and son look desperately for the titular bicycle. In The Outside Story, Charles searches for a way back into his apartment. It’s a very small film, but endearingly intimate in its smallness, like a hug or a pair of fuzzy slippers. I can also say with some confidence it’s easily the sweetest film with a sex swing gag one could hope to find.
It’s a soft film—generally endearingly so, though at times it may be just a little too toothless. The subplot involving traffic cop Slater is so bushy-tailed and bright-eyed it might as well be a bunny rabbit or legit copaganda. Insanely aggressive policing can be cured with friendship and sandwiches, apparently, but I digress. (“I hate the police, no offense,” Charles says at one point, literally hugging a cop… who asked for this? Literally who?)
Still, overall The Outside Story gets far more right than it gets wrong. It’s Brian Tyree Henry’s movie. On-screen, Henry’s career has been one of great ensemble and supporting performances (Atlanta, Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk), but here, he’s truly the star and demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that he possesses that particular screen presence needed to truly carry a movie. He elevates practically every scene through his performance, giving weaker moments where the narrative veers towards the overly twee or the dialogue mawkish a compelling believability. While several of the steps in Charles’ journey are overly convenient, Henry’s skill makes them feel authentic nonetheless.
The Outside Story is not the sort of movie that’s going to change your life, but then again not every movie needs to be. If you’re looking for something cozy and warm to try on for 85 minutes, it suits the bill perfectly.
The Outside Story is currently available on PVOD.
Header Image Source: Samuel Goldwyn Films