About once a week, I try to get my wife to join me in a rewatch of Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 meditation on grief and one of my favorite movies of the last decade. “It’s funny!” I lament for the millionth time. “It’s depressing,” Sara responds, “and it’s too heavy for a Tuesday night." She’s not wrong, but neither am I. That’s the magic of Lonergan’s unique brand of tonal tightrope-walking. Manchester doesn’t swerve back-and-forth between light comedy and heavy drama, but instead infuses every single scene with both, merely recalibrating the delicate balance across its runtime.
Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut, On the Count of Three, subscribes to a similar philosophy. A comparison to Manchester doesn’t behoove even most veteran directors, but Carmichael’s high-wire act takes the same approach to tone, replacing the topic of grief with friendship and depression, and tweaking Lonergan’s comedic sensibility about seven notches darker. To put it simply: I laughed harder and more while watching an 84-minute film about two dead-end buddies who make a suicide pact than during any other Sundance movie.
And that’s dangerous territory. But with a few minor exceptions, On the Count of Three never falls prey to the cringe that could have accompanied such a plot. It consistently treats issues like mental health and trauma with depth and sincerity, and perhaps more importantly, its actors - a low-key Carmichael and a blonde, phenomenal Christopher Abbott - bring a profound respect to the characters they inhabit. Carmichael’s direction and the script from newcomers Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch add a dose of healthy self-awareness, essentially building a world full of toxic, under-developed men that mines the consequences of that toxicity for both humor and heart.
Abbott has never been better, skating non-stop just millimeters away from an electrified third rail. His Kevin is a messy morass of love and pain, immense life and hollowed out humanity. His whiplash-inducing responses to trauma are recognizably rooted in both anger and shame, and his full character dichotomy grows directly from that experience. Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, and Henry Winkler all pop up in supporting roles, but it’s Carmichael and Abbott that carry the burden of this film. They offer competing visions of how depression swells and swells until it takes up your entire field of vision, blotting out the sun, and with it the ability to see anything else. An upper and a downer, they each fly a bit too close to that same sun, and in a heart-stopping finale, we see two of the many destinations to which these roads can lead.
While it may not resonate with everyone, the film doesn’t want to resonate with everyone. It works for Val and Kevin, and for anyone who sees even a bit of themselves in one of these two young men, On the Count of Three will hit home.