Throughout their sophomore feature Itchy Fingers, filmmaking duo Anna Nilles and Marco Jake challenge the idea that artists have the right to tackle whatever subjects they want, including violence and tragedy. Comedians, in particular, feel that they can shirk responsibility for what they present to an audience by claiming comedy as a “free pass.” It’s just a joke. It’s meant to be funny. You’re taking this too seriously. This practice has been subverted in recent years, but it’s a practice that’s much too common amongst those who think they are funny.
Nilles and Jake explore this all-too-relevant theme through Ernie Burroughs (Zachary Shultz), a would-be comedian who, unfortunately, isn’t very funny. He lives with his widowed, clown-makeup adorned father (Jeff Prather), and spends his days scrolling through YouTube and job-applications, devoting his entire life to comedy, and repetition. He posts videos online of his routines, which elicit cruel responses from anonymous trolls attacking his talent and his weight. When a supportive comment on one of his videos leads him to the website of Four Causes, a local theatre group, Ernie believes that he is finally getting the recognition he deserves, and he decides to pay the theatre a visit.
Ernie is warmly welcomed by the theatre’s friendly but intense director, Ms. Reddy (Elsa Guenther), and the rest of the troupe. However, away from his computer, it becomes clear that Ernie is out of his element. He tries to impress the troupe through jokes, which the others quickly call out and admonish.
Once the group starts developing its new play—a “real” and “searing” indictment of media and gun violence through a school shooting narrative—Ernie, cast as the school shooter, is thrust into a personal hell, one in which comedy is entirely discarded in favour of brutality and violence. When the play begins infringing on Ernie’s life outside of the theatre, he must reconcile the real and the imagined, in order to avoid the inevitable tragedy that seems to be brewing.
Nilles and Jake—who wrote, directed, produced, edited, and shot Itchy Fingers—imbue the film with a theatrical quality—their long, static takes mirroring the structured, insular world of Four Causes. There is a voyeurism that borders on clinical, the film reflecting the disturbing power of “access culture”: on the internet, we can see everything and be part of everything. It’s all at our fingertips. And, through Ernie, we realize that that might not always a good thing.
Schultz plays Ernie with a sheltered sincerity that makes some of the more placid—even banal—moments all the more unsettling. Every time we’re alone with Ernie, we wish someone else was there with us. Ernie represses his own bubbling rage and self-pity, internalizing his frustration and disappointment. When he is finally given a moment of catharsis, it is short lived; an abrupt cut sending him back to his room, alone and resigned.
Throughout the film’s first half, the tension is consistent and unrelenting. There is something inherently sinister about both the troupe, and Ernie. While the troupe wants to be intellectual about their approach to gun violence (they repeatedly talk about wanting to tell an “important” story), they’re mostly clueless about the topic they’re confronting. Nilles and Jake film them from grotesque angles, bickering about roles and props, and avoiding any discussion as to why they’re putting on this violent play.
While Itchy Fingers cleverly revels in satire, particularly in the scenes with the absurd theatre troupe, some of the film’s more meta elements—the ghost of Ernie’s mother “haunting” the home; the clown and mime makeup worn by his father and grandparents; a scene that “skips” forward a number of times as the skip icon flashes on screen, and another where the scene abruptly stops and buffers—are obtrusive and distracting. The appearance of streaming iconography works well during Ernie’s isolated scenes where he “death scrolls” into oblivion, but in others, these inserts feel like exercises in symbolic overindulgence.
And this leads to the film’s most glaring misstep, with the filmmakers presenting their various themes and indictments all too literally. While Ms. Reddy tells Ernie that she doesn’t want to spoon feed him the “artistic process,” Nilles and Jake seem to be doing exactly that, presenting the film’s politics so explicitly that it takes critical agency away from the viewer. By favouring thematic exposition over character motivation or evolution, the film’s earlier tension dissolves into bleak monotony.
While there are flashes of nuance and originality, all anchored by Shultz’s captivating performance, the film ends up muddled by its own cleverness and reflexivity. Much like Ernie, the filmmakers want their voices to be at the forefront. Unfortunately, by the end, they’ve fallen into the same superficial pitfalls that some of their own characters tried so hard to avoid.