There’s a delicate balance going on in first time feature director Emmanuel Shirinian’s It Was You Charlie. It’s a charming film about a less than charming protagonist that’s slowly coming to realize that he needs to better himself or kill himself. It’s a story that has been told before in various incarnations, but there’s a quirky sensibility to Shirinian’s work that feels fresh. It’s a dark comedy that earns its moments of sunshine and levity honestly despite a couple of minor narrative hiccups now and then.
Abner (Michael D. Cohen) is a 42-year old loser. He quit his job as a university art professor to impress a student he had an unrequited crush on (Anna Hopkins), only to have his more successful and better looking younger brother Tom (Aaron Abrams) unwittingly steal her away from her on his 40th birthday. Miserable and haunted by another past incident that’s glimpsed in flashbacks, Abner wallows away his evenings as an elevator operator overnight and spends his days either acting like a neurotic, anti-social mess or contemplating-slash-attempting suicide. His life is altered, however, after meeting a kindly taxi driver (Emma Fleury) that asks him nicely to not kill himself.
There are elements (particularly involving Fleury’s cab driver) that feel a bit obvious, somewhat unnecessary, and designed to pad the running time of Shirinian’s film from a short to a feature. There’s not a heck of a lot of plot or pacing, with over half of the movie representing character beats instead of forward momentum. It’s a simple story about a depressed man that carries a bit of bulk around the waist, but the film’s core look at a poisonous and one sided kind of sibling rivalry is captivating.
There are echoes of Toby Jones in the diminutive Cohen’s leading performance. Cohen showcases the character’s inability to accept defeat and to hold a needless grudge with aplomb. The simple look on his face is enough to question if Abner really wants to die or if he’s just so angry with himself that he’s gone into shock. He’s a man left clueless by his own mistakes and a previously naieve understanding of the world around him. He also plays perfectly against Abrams, who Shirinian wisely casts in a sympathetic light despite Abner’s hatred for him. They have a very unique relationship that could only come as a result of a deep hatred born from a deep love. The film also never goes into revenge movie territory between the two, instead developing a time shifting plot where an unseen disaster during the brothers’ time apart will necessitate a cathartic reunion.
The film was also shot by masterful Canadian cinematographer Luc Montpellier, who effectively captures a vision of Toronto in a chilly fall. It’s cold, but with a uniquely warm glow around the outlines; a great visual metaphor for the film as a whole.