By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
The San Diego International Film Festival occurred digitally like so many of San Diego’s biggest events this year. Instead of crowding into theaters, participants, including me, could watch dozens of feature films, documentaries and shorts from their homes. A few major films showed as drive-in movies in La Jolla’s UTC mall although I skipped those.
A dizzying array of film options were available for live streaming or on demand, as well as conversations with filmmakers. Screened at the festival was Oscar-bait movie “Nomadland” starring Frances McDormand, which won an Audience’s Choice award. Other award winners at the festival may not be high in contention for Academy Awards but still impressed the judges and audience. “Drunk Bus” won best feature film, “MLK/FBI” won best documentary and “150 Million Magical Sparrows” won best international feature.
The film festival also highlighted the work of many local filmmakers with several shorts blocks and a handful of feature films, including one made during the quarantine. After a year of stress, depression, financial crises and anxiety, each time I scrolled through the feature films options, I was only drawn to comedies. Despite all the options, I avoided thrillers, documentaries and dramas – genres I typically enjoy. What I wanted from this festival was undiluted escapism, even if I would later have to write about it for work.
To that end, there were plenty of feature-length comedies to choose from including “Eat Wheaties!” starring Tony McHale (“Arrested Development”), which won for best comedy, coming-of-age dramedy “The Miseducation of Bindu” and wickedly sharp dark comedy “Ms. White Light.” Short films brought their own hilarious moments, with the LGBTQ section being particularly potent. I watched the campy musical “Romance is Dead” directed by former SDSU student Todd Jackson on repeat as each time I noticed a new delightful detail.
Among the comedies worth your time was “The Outside Story” from debut writer and director Casimir Nozkowski. In his first lead role in a feature, Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”) stars as introverted and heartbroken video editor Charles Young who gets locked out of his Brooklyn apartment. Through his attempts to get back into his apartment to meet a deadline, he befriends many of the neighbors he had previously avoided. The film is good-hearted and fun as neighbors slowly help Henry lighten up and repair his relationship.
The people Charles interacts with are burgeoning stars in their own right. In a Q&A session, director Nozkowski explained that he thought getting Henry in the role was a longshot but reached out to his agent anyway. When Henry enthusiastically came on board, the cast quickly filled out with Sonequa Martin-Green, Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Asia Kate Dillon and others in a screenplay that calls for over a dozen lead speaking roles.
Henry gives an excellent performance with understated physical humor punctuated with bursts of action. The effervescent Sunita Mani (“GLOW”) delivers an anxious and enthusiastic performance as a pedantic parking enforcement cop.
Unlike many films and shows set in New York City, this was actually filmed in the Big Apple. Nozkowski is a life-long resident of the state, which perhaps informed his decision to subvert a New York stereotype about rudeness to show how neighborly many are. The cast is very diverse which brings more verisimilitude to a story set in New York.
While the film is warm-hearted and certainly believes that more human interaction is beneficial, it is not under the illusion that all people are good. Some minor characters like a group of bullies and a controlling mom are clear villains without much in the way of positive attributes.
In the tight 85-minute film, there are many hilarious moments, including Henry repeatedly interrupting a threesome in the upstairs apartment, teaching an elderly neighbor how to use online dating apps and accidentally dropping a water balloon on an enraged Officer Slater (Mani).
Overall, keeping the movie short without prolonged comedic scenes with diminishing returns was a smart choice. The only scene that comes across as too short is between Asia Kate Dillard (“Billions”) and Rebecca Naomi Jones as partners who discover they both cheated on each other. In his Q&A, Nozkowski admitted that their quick reconciliation verges on unrealistic. That is an understatement but the point of the scene is achieved: Charles needs to learn to lighten up in his own relationship.
The movie is particularly timely as many people find themselves isolated at home. As the cast interacts in close quarters without masks, it is downright utopic.
Other aspects have aged poorly between the filming and its release after a summer where people have protested against the ill treatment of Black people by police. Police aggression is played for laughs over and over in some of the funniest scenes in the movie.
“I couldn’t hear you over the injustice,” Charles says to a cop mumbling an apology in one of the movie’s final scenes.
It requires cognitive dissonance to watch without also thinking of the many ways a police officer targeting a large Black man could go in real life. Sami’s Officer Slater has the best redemption arc in the film and her performance is still heartfelt. Henry does get several quips about his treatment by the police even as some of the scenes are unintentionally cringy.
Despite its few flaws, “The Outside Story” gives Henry a chance to show off his acting chops on the big screen (well, small in this case) and shows audiences should look out for future Nozkowski projects.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.