Curios don’t get much more curious than “Sylvio,” which has the distinction of being both the weirdest, and most affecting, feature ever made starring a man in a monkey suit — or, to be more precise, a man in a monkey suit wearing a monkey suit. The story of a forlorn “ape” who has a 9-to-5 office cubicle job and finds fame by becoming the very thing he doesn’t want to be, this charming lo-fi indie from actor-director Kentucker Audley and director Albert Birney is attuned to its own eccentric wavelength, equal parts absurd and poignant. It won’t attract more than a niche audience, but a cult following for this bizarro effort seems quite possible.
Based on “Simply Sylvio,” a series of avant-garde Vine videos created by Birney, the Kickstarter-funded “Sylvio” details the solitary existence of a Baltimore-based gorilla named Sylvio Bernardi (credited as himself), played by a person wearing a suit and tie and sunglasses over an inexpressive animal costume. Sylvio is employed at a debt collection agency where — because he doesn’t speak — he makes phone calls using a computer that robotically verbalizes his typing. It’s an unrewarding vocation, and Sylvio thus finds fulfillment primarily in his free time, be it by playing basketball or by making puppet shows titled “The Quiet Times With Herbert Herpel,” about a bald, mustached middle-aged gentleman who, in each episode, carries out a simple task, such as enjoying a Christmas feast or chopping firewood.
Sylvio’s monotonous day-to-day routine is upended when he’s sent out into the field to collect on the outstanding debt of Alan Reynolds (Audley), who hosts a daily TV talk show in his basement dubbed “The Afternoon Show With Alan Reynolds.” Mistaken for a guest who juggles, Sylvio smashes his props and immediately becomes a small-screen sensation, soon starring in his own segment, “What’s the Ape Gonna Break?” Nonetheless, as evidenced by his reserved demeanor and fondness for cat posters that advise “Breathe In, Chill Out,” Sylvio’s new angry-beast persona doesn’t jibe with his true nature. And as climactic revelations mount — conveyed via flashbacks to prior “Herbert Herpel” installments — it turns out to be a role he’s been actively fighting against for years.
Similar to Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney’s “Brigs by Bear,” “Sylvio” has a fetishistic fascination with old, corny DIY-style TV aesthetics, including scrawled title cards, hand-made sets and props, and an eclectic score consisting of synthesizers and electronic drum beats, piano and acoustic guitar. As befitting their tale about a man in a simian Halloween costume who is accepted as a natural part of the real (if off-kilter) human world, Audley and Birney get considerable mileage out of visually droll juxtapositions, none better than Sylvio morosely trudging to work on the sidewalk and being passed by a random, sprinting businessman. In moments such as this, the film achieves an odd, lyrical humor, all while also tapping into the fundamental disaffection plaguing its main character.
Beneath its silly exterior, replete with jabs at mainstream audiences’ low-brow tastes and industry bigwigs’ opportunistic sleaziness, “Sylvio” boasts a distressed soul. That’s because, as insane as it sounds, Audley and Birney’s collaboration is rooted in universal themes: the despair of loneliness; the corrosiveness of peer pressure; the desire for a connection with, and the understanding of, others; and the difficulty of both changing and staying true to yourself. To be sure, this is a film peppered with unusual gags and unexpected references to “Raging Bull” and “Full Metal Jacket” — two other likeminded sagas about bestial men. Yet even when their bananas premise grows a bit stale, the directors prove at least semi-serious about their material’s rawer emotions, thereby making the film an uncanny character study about an alienated anthropomorphic primate who yearns to be himself.