Ever since his breakthrough role as the erstwhile rapper Paper Boi in “Atlanta,” it’s been clear that one of Brian Tyree Henry’s great gifts is expressing exasperation, a world-weariness that requires no other explanation for engaging with the world as little as possible when you can tell he knows it would be wiser not to. He doesn’t ever seem like he needs to as Charles Young in “The Outside Story,” having a set-up so good in a Brooklyn apartment that the delivery guy (Jordan Carlos) from Burritotown wonders how he can afford it, which he can answer in the same breath as dismissing him, needing to get back to his work of editing In Memorium videos for Turner Classic Movies, currently under a tight deadline for a screen legend Gardner St. James who appears to be in his final days.
The delivery guy is disappointed that Charles’ girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green) wasn’t the one to answer the door, and Charles surely is too, having recently ended their relationship after she confessed to kissing someone else, and on this day in which his frustrations only mount as she plans to move out and he runs up against having to finish his latest tribute, writer/director Casimir Nozkowski has an ideal leading man for a lovely comedy which exudes sophistication in its simplicity. Armed with a murderer’s row of actors interesting enough to follow anywhere, Henry nonetheless seizes the spotlight with ease as someone who has gladly resisted spending much time outside of his apartment, often claiming his work to blame, suddenly thrust outdoors when he mistakes the keys Isha left to move her car for the ones to his apartment, accidentally locking himself outside with no obvious way back in.
When introducing himself to his neighbors hasn’t been a priority in the three years he’s lived in the brownstone, Charles is in for a bit of a rude awakening when his landlord is busy helping his mother to an optometry appointment and needs to knock on doors himself, finding out that his neighbor (Michael Cyril Creighton) upstairs is involved in a polyamorous relationship with a couple from Oslo and he lives next door to a talented pianist (“Better Things”’ Olivia Edward) with an overbearing mother (Maria Dizzia). In another movie, these might be wacky side characters, but there’s more than meets the eye to everyone in front the camera, with Nozkowski generously allowing the people that Charles has long resisted to show they have something to offer if he only interacted with them and reminding that he’s hardly alone in facing personal issues for which there are no easy answers.
“The Outside Story” is disarming in its utter lack of cynicism with almost every setback that happens to Charles serving as an opportunity to present the goodness around him, and always angrier with himself than anyone else, Charles is imbued with a good-natured curiosity by Henry that lets the unexpected emerge from all the exchanges he has when his mind isn’t already made up, whether it’s the old lady (Lynda Gravatt) in the next building over who he inadvertently introduces to Tinder or the traffic cop (Sunita Mani) eager to hand out parking violations on his street. When isolation has been the default mode for nearly everyone these past few months, the lighthearted day-in-the-life feels particularly refreshing in establishing such a strong sense of community around Charles to bring him out of his shell and almost radical in its kindness, tracking all the small ways in which its lead is opened up to evolving and quite possibly having a similarly subtle impact on anyone fortunate enough to see it.