With every post taking the form of a six-second loop, the now-defunct online platform Vine can only tell so much story. That made it an ideal venue for “Simply Sylvio,” Albert Birney’s chronicle of a working class ape struggling to find his place in human civilization. That would be Birney, in a furry gorilla suit, enacting a series of strange and melancholic moments that pushed just beyond the boundaries of a simple gag: Whether contemplating the changing of the seasons, wandering the beach, or partying alone at sundown, Sylvio existed for the sole purpose of small moments — and users responded, as attested by the half million followers that Birney developed over the course of 814 posts.
Needless to say, it would be hard to imagine these tidbits amounting to much beyond limitations of the format, which is why it’s particularly fascinating to see Birney try. Unlike the teen stars of YouTube and Instagram who sign with fashion labels and produce vapid movies tied into their brands, the improbable feature-length adaptation of the “Simply Sylvio” saga confronts its scrappy, improbable existence as a genuine creative challenge. In “Sylvio,” co-directed by Birney and microbudget actor-director Kentucker Audley (“Open Five,” “Sun Don’t Shine”), the plight of the alienated monkey is at turns absurd and genuinely bittersweet, not to mention a whole lot better than its premise might suggest.
In this extended version of Sylvio’s world, he leads a somber blue collar life at a small-town debt collection agency, where he cold-calls clients and speaks to them through a robotic computer from the confines of his drab cubicle. At home, Sylvio lounges around, occasionally staging mini-episodes of “The Quiet Times With Herbert Herpels,” an audience-free program in which Sylvio casts a portly, bald doll going through a series of mundane tasks. Birney and Audley have art-directed this contained setting to a fault, from the tidy plants surrounding the ape’s living room to the tranquil sheep painting on its wall. Typically adorned in bright orange sunglasses and incapable of speech, he’s an ideal vessel for silent comedy, and the filmmakers’ attention to detail allow the punchline of his very existence to merge nicely with sad, elegant lifestyle. Norman Rockwell by way of Pee Wee Herman, “Sylvio” justifies its expansion of the gimmick into a minuscule indie character study by the end of its first act.
Then Sylvio’s life gets complicated. On assignment to make a house call, he stumbles into the basement set of aspiring TV star Al Reynolds (Audley), who doesn’t realize that Sylvio’s there because Al’s cash flow issues. Like everyone else, Al assumes Sylvio exists merely for the purposes of entertainment, and put him on air; the results are awkward, but the gorilla becomes an unexpected hit, and suddenly the pair have joined forces to propel him to new celebrity heights. Needless to say, fame doesn’t sit well with Sylvio, particularly once his schtick settles into a recurring bit in which he just smashes things left and right. Nagged by the chant of “What’s the ape gonna break?” that follows him at every turn, Sylvio would much rather stage more serene installments of “The Quiet Times With Herbert Herpels,” his anticlimactic look at everyday life. But the industry clamors for stupid animal tricks.
It’s a wry plot twist that allows “Sylvio” to comment on the inanity of internet celebrity through its own homegrown example, and the movie gets away with that critical gaze for much of its concise duration. With no words or expressions to elaborate on his mood, Sylvio becomes an inscrutable figure by default, and much of the movie involves the mystery of determining his thoughts. While the quest for showbiz fame suggests a latter-day “Wayne’s World,” Sylvio’s inherently weird universe pushes the material into more unpredictable directions. When the story gets darker in the final third, careening into a baffling dream sequence, “Sylvio” successfully makes the case for turning its minimalist premise into a genuine conduit for emotional exploration. Aided by a gentle score, Sylvio’s plight generates real.
Still, while so much better than one might expect, “Sylvio” comes up short of much more than that. At times, the drama strains from uneven performances and a scenario that changes direction a few too many times over, as if sifting through Vine entries in search of more expository details. Some clunkier moments work against the overall strength of the conceit. But for the most part, the movie remains a compelling gamble driven by its self-aware outlook. It shares some DNA with the likes of prankish low budget meta-comedies like “Uncle Kent 2,” a similarly baffling high concept reflective of creators eager to push against the assumption that a one-joke setup could justify anything more than just that.
Needless to say, Sylvio endures a classic journey toward making peace with his existence, and that’s enough to make it worthwhile. By saying nothing, the gorilla speaks volumes about the boundaries of a media age too fragmented for much depth to sneak in. At least Bernardi and Audley try.
“Sylvio” premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.