It’s not often you stumble upon a sweet family film at Sundance. Even rarer, to tumble upon a family film that isn’t irretrievably stupid. Brian and Charles is brighter than the average bear and filled with pluck. It’s also got a seven-foot tall robot that loves cabbages.
Director Jim Archer and writers David Earl and Chris Hayward expand the subject of their 2017 short film to feature-length with moderately amusing results. It’s not rewriting the boundaries of comedy, but Brian and Charles are delightful chaps to spend 90 minutes with.
There’s not much to do in the tiny Welsh village where Brian (David Earl) lives. He occupies his time making wacky inventions, like the egg belt or a pine cone bag. He’s a dreamer. Sure, the dreams are dumb, but they’re dreams nonetheless. During one particularly long, lonely winter, Brian has a brainstorm. “I’m building a robot.”
Brian doesn’t build just any robot; he makes “a very, very cheeky robot” named Charles (Chris Hayward). Charles is about seven feet tall, with a clunky square body and a mannequin head made to look like an eccentric professor. He’s a splendidly bizarre concoction that amuses and horrifies in equal measure. “My tummy is a washing machine!” he exclaims with childlike innocence. Yes, it’s impossible not to love Charles.
It’s the divine weirdness of Brian and Charles that keeps it from growing too maudlin. It aims to tell the peculiar story of a lonely man who builds a funky robot and does so with amiable efficiency. Most of the humor comes from the byplay between Brian and Charles in the film’s first half. Charles learns how to dance and play, though things get dicey when he sprays Brian with weedkiller instead of the garden hose.
The second half of the film stalls a bit. We meet a potential love interest named Hazel (Louise Brealey) and the town bully Eddie (Jamie Michie). Eddie is entirely too vile for such a lighthearted film. He brutalizes the kindly store clerk and threatens Brian with physical violence on several occasions. Eddie certainly adds a genuine sense of peril, but one wonders if Brian and Charles actually need peril.
More fun is Charles’ growing independence. He badgers Brian constantly to leave the house, clamoring to travel to Honolulu, of all places. He’s like a restless adolescent trying to spread his wings, only to have his protective father pull him back into the nest. Still, we are left to hope the parenting skills learned with Charles will translate to a potential family with Hazel.
Archer employs a similar mockumentary style to Clement and Waititi’s 2014 vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows, albeit to a less bawdy effect. Soon we completely forget about the cameraman, which begs why he was inserted into the action at all. We could understand Brian’s enthusiasm to document the building of Charles, but the cameraman is already there when the story begins. One supposes it’s better than having Brian talk to a volleyball.
Brian and Charles is a delightful morsel that tastes sweet without causing a toothache. It’s also a celebration of inventiveness and ingenuity. Mainly, it’s just a funny little story about a seven-foot robot that loves cabbage. Sometimes that’s all you need.