Abner Roth (Michael D. Cohen) is a lonesome bellhop in Toronto. He walks around in an aimless daze, scarred by two memories. The first is when his younger brother, Tom (Aaron Abrams), decided to marry the love of Abner’s life. The second is the scene of a gruesome car crash Abner survived and fled. Now thinking of ending his life, Abner befriends a quirky yet sweet young woman, Zoe (Emma Fleury), who encourages him to reconcile with his family and extinguish all of his dark thoughts.
It Was You Charlie, which takes its title from an On the Waterfront quote, is a sometimes affecting, often-meandering debut feature. Writer/director Emmanuel Shirinian has obvious love for his morbid protagonist. However, when dealing with Abner’s psychological trauma, it is easy to figure out what is fantasy and what is reality. This diminishes the film of its climactic surprises, when we finally see the root of his pain at the scene of the car accident.
Regardless, Michael D. Cohen gives a deeply moving performance as Abner. We understand his solitude as he gazes into the distance or sits in his apartment, thinking of suicide. Shirinian often positions Cohen, balding and already a head shorter than much of the cast, in the back of the frame early on. This makes him feel smaller than he already is, creating further empathy for his troubled state. As for the other actors, Aaron Abrams (best known for TV’s Hannibal) is terrific as Abner’s controlling brother. Meanwhile, Emma Fleury is a tad too indulgently quirky for this somber drama.
While It Was You Charlie tackles some difficult themes, it also wallows in despair. With such a sad story and passive protagonist, the film takes a while to get momentum going. The middle third is needlessly fragmented, hinting at the event that spurred him into mental disarray. This ambiguity just makes the storytelling sag. Without much in the way of clear answers, we sit impatiently as we wait for Abner to become active and come to terms. Shirinian’s film may have had more power and emotional currency if it had been cut to half its length. It Was You Charlie explores one man’s grief with sensitivity, but also in so much detail that much of it feels redundant.