ST. LOUIS — A wise man once said that friends are the family we choose in life.
For Val (Jerrod Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott), best friends already thinking about the end, it's a mantra that holds truer than most friends. When "On the Count of Three" opens up, we see Kevin pointing a gun at Val, who also happens to be pointing a gun of his own at his longtime pal. They've made a pact together to shoot and kill each other, a brotherly love form of suicide that gets to wait one more day as they close out assorted business in their respective lives.
If there's one thing that I loved about Carmichael's directorial debut, it's the lived-in feel and big-time personality it showed in just 76 minutes of movie time. "On the Count of Three" only needs a little more than half of the running time of a normal Marvel movie to get its message across and deliver some entertainment in the process. Yes, entertainment can be found in a plot that is centered around suicide and the lack of prevention that victims can find on their road out. That's due to Carmichael taking a deft script from Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, and treating a sensitive subject with honesty and humor.
The truce between friends works as a springboard for the viewer to meet and fall in love with these two damaged men. Abbott's Kevin has battled depression and anxiety in the cruelest of forms since a very young age, being particularly affected by a psychologist (Henry Winkler, turning his charm in the other direction). Val also had a rough upbringing, which was inflamed by an abusive father (J.B. Smoove). At the beginning of "On the Count of Three," he is sitting at a crossroads due to a call from his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish).
One of Carmichael's (a producer on the film as well) biggest accomplishments here is crafting a movie that never quite feels like a standard cinema specimen. An indie darling that essentially places the audience with these two men for a whole day, a fateful adventure that never gets too low or too high. All the while, the script touches on the perception of mental health and racism with an understated touch that only makes it land deeper. Val and Kevin aren't crazy; they've been given a couple of cruel decks of cards to play with, and a new dealer never showed up to help.
The potency of "On the Count of Three" shouldn't be a surprise. Carmichael broke into Hollywood as a renegade stand-up comedian, one that didn't follow the standard comic path or trajectory-talking about uncomfortable yet vital political subjects and topics on stage. In a subtle manner, he continues that discussion with his directorial debut that doesn't beat its audience over the head with its plot hook, but aims to pull a reaction from the viewer nevertheless.
A good cast helps with that mission, featuring new faces and familiar faces with a different look. Abbott is still a relatively unknown commodity to most movie fans, popping up as a killer rampaging through Jon Bernthal's motel in "Sweet Virginia" or the mysterious Colin Tate in "Possessor." But everything he has done before pales in comparison to his portrayal of Kevin, the wild thing in the duo.
Instead of just making him a full-blown depressed rage monster, Abbott treats him like a silent grenade with the pin halfway in. The first thing we see in the film is his troubled and just about lost eyes, frustratingly handling a firearm that he doesn't even know how to use. Abbott makes you feel that pain instantly. It's the film's best performance.
Carmichael gives Val a working man's vulnerability, someone who is in the middle of a bad run and needs a lift. He is the sounder mind in the duo, but also one still lacking a few cheat codes to life's toughest questions. "Breaking Bad" fans get to see the lovable Lavell Crawford (Huell on the acclaimed show) enjoy expanded screen time as a dirt bike racetrack owner, the kind of pal who cuts you down but does it out of love. Smoove, like Winkler, gets to do something sinister here, a different shade from his usual work. Haddish owns her one scene, dishing Val some crushing truths about adulthood.
But at the heart of the delight in "On the Count of Three" is the value of best friendship. The real deal. The kind of stranger-turned-family pal who would shoot someone who had a gun pointed at their friend. The kind of pal who hits a man over the head with a tire wrench to protect his "ride or just die later" ally. Someone who can tell you how it is and what you need to do. How the darkest of days can be brightened by a small roast from your bestie.
That doesn't mean "On the Count of Three" can't be heartbreaking or dire, earning some of its "dark" subject credibility in the third act. You don't tiptoe around suicide without stepping on some bleakness. It just proves that when made and presented right, humor and tragedy can co-exist with honesty on film in a powerful way. Coming in at a small fraction of the production cost and half the runtime of a summer blockbuster while packing a unique punch, Carmichael's debut is an indie darling at its finest.
If you need mental health support, you can call the Behavioral Health Response Crisis Hotline at 314-469-6644 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.