A still from Brian and Charles by Jim Archer, an official selection of the World Cinema: Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
An endearing outlier, Brian lives alone in a Welsh valley, inventing oddball contraptions that seldom work. After finding a discarded mannequin head, Brian gets an idea. Three days, a washing machine, and sundry spare parts later, he’s invented Charles, an artificially intelligent robot who learns English from a dictionary and proves a charming, cheeky companion. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
Sometimes a good pallet cleanser is exactly what’s needed. Something light and heartfelt to lift the spirits. And that’s exactly what Brian and Charles does. Written by David Earl and Chris Hayward and directed by Jim Archer, Brian and Charles is a sweet, heartwarming comedy about a man and his robot. Its premise doesn’t quite support the ninety-minute runtime. But it’s such a joyous watch that it’s hard to be mad about it.
An Absurd, Emotional Comedy
Everyone around town knows Brian (David Earl) the inventor. Kind-hearted, timid, and a little bit shy, Brian lives a quiet life. Until he finds a mannequin head on the side of the road and uses it to build a robot – Charles (Chris Hayward). Armed with a dictionary’s worth of knowledge and a washing machine for a torso, Charles proves to be exactly the friend Brian’s always needed. But things aren’t as sunny as they first appear. Charles wants to get out of Brian’s house, to see the world. And Brian’s too scared of how perilous the world is to give Charles any freedom. Part Frankenstein, part coming-of-age comedy, and entirely joyous, Brian and Charles takes a familiar genre and pushes it to its most absurd levels. Those who’ve seen What We Do in the Shadows will find lots to like about Brian and Charles.
Filmed in a mockumentary style and featuring plenty of dry, absurd humor, Brian and Charles perfectly balances genuine emotion with some delightfully bizarre humor. There’s never a moment the film doesn’t delight. Whether it’s Brian’s endearing awkwardness or Charles’s adorable ignorance of the world, the movie is full of joyous moments. I mean, how can you not laugh when a ridiculous-looking robot matter-of-factly tells you that his “tummy is a washing machine” or that he’s the “prince of the dartboard” after making a single bullseye? The movie loses some of its momentum during the second act, where you can feel Earl and Hayward trying to stretch the premise a bit too thin. But the sheer electric joy that comes from Brian and Charles’ relationship is more than enough to carry the film over such hurdles.
A Heartfelt Relationship Between Man and Machine
While the movie is an absolute laugh riot from start to finish, what really makes it work is how genuinely touching Brian and Charles’ relationship is. If you asked Brian at the start of the movie if he felt his life was missing something, I’m not sure he’d have said so. But as he and Charles grow closer, he realizes that this quirky little robot is filling a hole in his life he didn’t even realize he had. And naturally, that makes him extra protective of Charles. After all, the two aren’t just friends. For all intents and purposes, Brian is Charles’ father. And, like all parents, Brian struggles with the idea of Charles wanting more than he can give him. The more Brian tries to hold onto Charles, the more he pushes him away. It’s a surprisingly heartbreaking idea for a movie like this. But it works beautifully.
Because while Brian and Charles make each other better, they both deserve something more. Charles helps Brian finally come out of his shell. To talk to his neighbor, Hazel (Louise Braley), he’s been crushing on. And to stand up to the town’s bully, Eddie (Jamie Michie). But Brian can only offer Charles so much. And at some point, he’s got to find the courage to let Charles live his own life. It’s a poignant lesson, and one that runs underneath all of the scenes of dancing robots and cabbage launchers and other silliness. Brian and Charles would’ve been excellent as just an absurdist comedy, to be sure. But this emotional underpinning makes it an even better watch. And sure, none of this is particularly original in the sci-fi world. But it’s executed so well here. So full of care and joy. And sometimes, that’s all you really need.
David Earl and Chris Hayward don’t just deliver a sweet, funny script, though. They also deliver some truly hilarious, heartwarming performances. As Brian, Earl is immediately endearing. He’s the kind of person you root for the second you see them. Kind-hearted but a bit awkward, Earl manages to keep Brian grounded in an otherwise fantastical story. And in those moments where you see Brian’s insecurities crop to the surface, Earl portrays them brilliantly. Never over the top, always feeling very authentic, his performance is both understated and brilliant.
Design-wise, Charles makes no sense. A mannequin head on top of a washing machine, with some arms and legs attached to it. Yet you always buy the reality of the character. And that’s a testament both to Hayward’s physicality and to his vocal performance. Physically, Charles moves exactly the way you’d expect. He’s big, he’s lumbering, and his balance is a bit weird. Looking at Charles, there’s no world in which you’d think he could dance. Yet, there he is, doing an adorable jig. And everything about his body language just feels so real. The same is true for his voice, too. Hayward gives Charles a very robotic-sounding voice, but one that’s filled with emotion. When Charles enters his angsty phase, you feel it. When he’s sad, you feel it. It’s such a simple-yet-brilliant performance. And it goes a long way toward making Charles a believable, real character.
At the end of the day, Brian and Charles is an absolutely delightful film. Heartfelt, hilarious, and so full of joy, it’s well worth a watch. Will it be the most memorable film to come out of this year’s Sundance Festival? Of course not. But it’s not trying to be, either. What it is is a ninety-minute long warm hug. Featuring a delightful script and engaging performances, you won’t regret giving Brian and Charles a watch. And when you do, make sure you stick around for the credits – you won’t want to miss them.
Brian and Charles premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section of Sundance Film Festival 2022.
Director: Jim Archer
Writers: David Earl, Chris Hayward
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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Part-time writer, part-time theatre nerd, full-time dork.