This Brian Tyree Henry vehicle gets a lot of mileage out of being cozy and casual.
In the last year, we’ve all been able to relate to The Outside Story protagonist Charles Young (Brian Tyree Henry) and his desire to just stay indoors. Whereas the general public’s inclination to stay inside has come from the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, Young has been refusing to move from his couch due to a severe case of heartbreak. After learning that his girlfriend, Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green), cheated on him, the two have broken up. Now Young is so forlorn that he can do nothing but remain in his apartment working on video editing assignments from Turner Classic Movies.
However, after chasing down a delivery boy to give him an appropriate tip, something unfortunate happens. Young is now locked outside of his apartment. This introvert is now being forced to handle the outside world. As he waits for his landlord to come by and let him back in, Young has a series of encounters with colorful characters in the local area. These range from a young piano prodigy named Elena (Olivia Howard), police officer Slater (Sunita Mani), and helpful neighbor Sara (Lynda Gravatt).
The most exciting feature of The Outside Story is how it affords Brian Tyree Henry a tragically rare opportunity to headline a feature-length movie. After delivering one of the best performances of 2018 with his role in If Beale Street Could Talk, Henry has demonstrated he has way too much talent to be stuck with thankless supporting roles in movies like Hotel Artemis or Godzilla vs. Kong. Thankfully, The Outside Story makes a fine case for this being only the beginning of Henry’s career as a leading man in movies.
Henry has always been so gifted at imbuing an immediate sense of authenticity to his characters, and that skill is nicely utilized here. From the very start of the story, Henry’s portrayal of Charles’ melancholy effortlessly registers as something authentic rather than a strained attempt to emulate real turmoil. This quality becomes especially useful as Charles begins to encounter a series of larger-than-life characters. Even as the wackiness around him stacks up, Henry resists resorting to easy slapstick or gratingly over-the-top dialogue deliveries to score cheap laughs.
Instead, Henry continues to be someone firmly rooted in the real world, especially when he’s handling moments where Young is contemplating how his relationship with Isha could have fallen apart. This performance provides an engaging anchor for The Outside Story and its story about self-discovery through unexpected encounters. Said story tends to eschew a typical three-act structure in favor of just letting Charles bounce around from one larger-than-life character to the next.
This narrative style lends a welcome sense of flexibility to The Outside Story. Rather than fixating Charles on a set path, writer/director Casimir Nozkowski delivers a screenplay that’s more of a leisurely stroll. Some of the adventures on that stroll are more entertaining than others, but the low-key vibes brought to life through a series of committed performers are hard to resist.
Henry has always been so gifted at imbuing an immediate sense of authenticity to his characters, and that skill is nicely utilized here.
Unfortunately, this mellowed-out approach does make the most discernible shortcoming of The Outside Story extra apparent. In the final ten minutes, Nozkowski leans too heavily on characters engaging in shouting matches or awkwardly abrupt bouts of physical confrontations to push the story into a tidy conclusion. The movie was working so well just focusing on casual encounters with strangers rather than rigidly adhering to conventional narrative norms. The project works best when it’s a hangout movie, not when it opts to go predictable.
Noskowski does show commendable restraint in coming up with the resolutions for the various lives of the people Young runs into. Happily, none of these other storylines, including a woman on the verge of giving birth or Elena’s struggles with her mom, get tidy endings. Instead, there’s an open-endedness that quietly suggests the world of The Outside Story will keep on spinning long after the credits finish rolling. Equally smile-inducing is how joy is found in simple things, like two new friends bonding over trying out new food shops.
The world Charles inhabits is also one that actually seems to exist in reality in terms of diversity. Charles encounters people of various ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations in his adventures and it’s all treated as natural as plants growing out of the garden. It’s cool to see this kind of nonchalant diversity in any context but it works especially well in the context of The Outside Story. Giving so much variety in the supporting characters subtly suggests what a big exciting world Charles is missing out on by refusing to engage with the larger world.
You’ll probably be able to figure out the lessons Charles will learn in his time spent trapped outside his apartment, but that doesn’t make the journey there any less pleasant. After all, there are worse ways to travel down a familiar path than with a memorable Brian Tyree Henry performance!
The Outside Story premieres on demand starting April 30th.