The film that knows what it wants to do but struggles to pull it off.
It Was You Charlie
The moment near the end of a film that puts everything you have just watched into perspective is a dicey proposition. It requires the closing payoff to be something worth waiting for–and more importantly, it demands deft storytelling. To purposefully omit something by writing around it, then carefully drive the story towards it later, takes considerable skill to pull off. In It Was You Charlie, there is a lot of writing around, writing towards, and a final reveal at the end. The question is, is it worth it?
Abner (Michael D. Cohen) is a third-shift doorman whose own life has haunted him for the last two years. The former academic was shunned by the woman he loved, betrayed by his brother, and was a key participant in a horrific car accident. The accident has left such a scar on his soul, he has built a diorama of the scene in his apartment. It’s as if he is punishing himself for the accident by being able to relive it whenever he wants. Unable to find happiness, Abner resigns himself to suicide, but his repeated attempts–by different measures–fail.
Zoe (Emma Fleury), a mysterious young blonde cab driver in a bright yellow beret, appears in Abner’s life, but for reasons he cannot understand. Nor does he understand the repeated appearance of strange men in trench coats who seem to follow him wherever he goes. There is also something about a painting in his local diner that mesmerizes him. Estranged from his family and even further estranged from a normal life, Abner must make sense of the things around him and come to terms with what has haunted him these years.
The answer to the question, “Is it all worth it?” is a firm “No,” but it isn’t for lack of trying. What makes this feature debut for Canadian writer/director Emmanuel Shirinian so frustrating is that the film knows what it wanted to achieve, but it struggles to pull it off. Eventually, It Was You Charlie suffers under the weight of its own super-sized gimmick.
Shirinian’s biggest gamble is that he doesn’t just attempt a clever reveal; he doubles-down to present the film as a non-linear story. The tale begins and ends in the present, but randomly hops around Abner’s 40th, 41st, and 42nd birthdays. This jagged presentation demands the smoothest and clearest storytelling possible, but it doesn’t happen here. Shirinian’s presentation of facts instead provides details not like overlays leading to a clear final picture, but like random puzzle pieces that are all eventually necessary, but without any ongoing assembly of them.
This convolution undermines the greater story, which, at a higher level, is an interesting one. It’s a story about a man who has unaddressed emotional issues that need attention–issues of guilt and regret, how they affect him, and how they might be tangentially connected, but in no way related in some cause-and-effect construct that he seems to think exists. There are also two minor side-stories (far too slight to be subplots)–one about Abner’s lonely landlord and the other about an unhinged coworker–neither do nothing to further story or character, thus only serve as a distraction.
There are also attempts to make It Was you Charlie something of a black comedy. The scenes with Abner’s attempted suicides somewhat work, especially given Abner’s physical build. Though, most of the humorous moments try too hard to be funny and only manage to feel forced and fall flat (the scene with the suicide hotline putting Abner on hold– a joke as old as time–is a key example).
Holding it all together as best he can is the film’s rock, Cohen, who has a character actor’s appearance but a leading man’s screen presence. He plays defeat very well, with a great sense of desperation forged by circumstance. Cohen clearly understands the weight of his character’s pain and maximizes his nebbish looks to full, depressing affect. This is magnified in scenes with Abner’s taller, much better-looking brother Tom, played by Aaron Abrams. While the rest of the characters are finely portrayed by their respective actors, are there only in support of the lead; It Was You Charlie is The Abner show.
Throughout It Was You Charlie, there is a sense that Shirinian has a firm grasp of the complete film in his head, but he struggles to make a clear presentation of it on-screen. Cohen’s performance, as well as Luc Montpellier’s excellent cinematography, are bright spots of the film. However, the haze of the story dims those bright spots considerably.