The Delightful Brian and Charles Makes a Grand Case for Human-Robot Friendships

The Delightful Brian and Charles Makes a Grand Case for Human-Robot Friendships
Image: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In 2017, Gizmodo wrote about a short film titled Brian and Charles, dubbing it beautifully shot and equal parts poignant and wryly hilarious.” So we were thrilled to see that director Jim Archer made a feature film based on his short It just made its debut at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and is an early contender for feel-good movie of the year.

Like the short, the feature is filmed documentary-style. We’re introduced to eccentric inventor Brian (David Earl, who co-wrote with Charles Hayward, who plays Charles). He takes on odd jobs around his rural English village when he’s not puttering around his cluttered workshop (“My infamous inventions pantry! It’s actually a cow shed”) building whimsical and generally useless creations, like a belt that holds eggs and an elaborate “flying cuckoo clock” contraption. Despite his frequent failures, Brian is an optimist — when the flying clock catches fire, he shrugs and says brightly “on to the next one!” — but there’s a sadness that clings to him. He’s an upbeat guy, but he’s deeply lonely. Things begin to change when he has a zap of inspiration when he comes across a mannequin head while digging through a trash heap: He’ll build a robot!

While Brian initially explains he wants a robot to help him with chores, it’s clear that he longs for companionship (his only friend we see is shy villager Hazel, played by Sherlock’s Louise Brealey). He crafts his new invention using parts he finds around his house — part of Brian and Charles’ immense appeal is its enthusiastic embrace of extremely lo-fi special effects; the robot is quite obviously a man wearing a large box over his head and torso, with the mannequin head sticking out at the top — and though it doesn’t work at first, his creation springs to life thanks to either a thunderstorm or perhaps the interference of his wire-nibbling pet mouse. “This is incredibly overwhelming,” Brian says of his unexpected success. He names the robot Charles, and the pair — one an awkward middle-aged man, the other a seven-foot-tall, ramshackle AI who’s sort of a blend of genius alien, hyperactive toddler, and petulant teenager — soon become best friends, complete with a shared love of cabbages and a joyful hanging-out montage set to “Happy Together.”

But it’s not all domestic bliss. The dynamic between Brian and Charles becomes strained when Charles expresses his longing to explore and travel (specifically to Hawaii, after glimpsing its wonders on TV), and Brian becomes obsessed with the idea of keeping Charles hidden from the outside world, especially the cruel town bully. Things get even stickier when Brian and Hazel begin spending more time together and Charles’ persistent urge to rebel evolves from “cheeky” to “incredibly annoying” to “perilous.” The story (man creates robot, man loses robot, man and robot reunite) may be simple, but Brian and Charles’ message about the complexities of friendship is both heartwarming and universal — and the performances are wonderful across the board. Special props to Hayward for bringing such emotional range to a character that consists of a monotone robot voice and a surprisingly expressive plastic face, with some top-notch physical comedy thrown in for good measure.

Brian and Charles does not yet have a wide release date, but here’s hoping it gets one soon.