Ernie has led a quiet, sad life. His childhood was troubled and lonely, he burned the family business to the ground and he has never been able to earn the approval of his father. Now an old man, he has had no loved ones or family — he only has his job knitting tea cozies. On his 70th birthday, having done nothing memorable or in his life, Ernie decides to end it.
His suicide attempt is unsuccessful, however, and punctures a hole in his ceiling. But he soon develops a bond with a young boy who lives upstairs — a friendship that pulls Ernie out of his lifelong despair and helps bring hope and connection back into his world.
Written and directed by Hadley Hillel, this fantasy short has the feel of a modern fable, both in its uniquely stylized look and production design and in the voiceover that opens the film. With richly literary and formal language, the narrator sets up a character and situation that speaks of a stifled life — a man who, though alive, has not quite lived or loved fully. This isn’t Ernie’s fault, because his family life has been neglectful and he’s suffered much tragedy and bad luck. But it has hobbled his ability to make connections and see the richness of the world around him.
Production design often plays a highlighted role in fantasy, though the storytelling leverages this tool of craft in a unique way. Rather than aiming for a sumptuous, heightened fantasy realm — think classic tales like Lord of the Rings but also the highly stylized films of Wes Anderson — almost the entirety of the film’s physical surroundings, including buildings, objects and decorations, are rendered in the humble, ordinary material of cardboard.
Ernie’s surroundings are not whimsical, inspiring marvel and joy. Instead, their uniform “brownness” emphasizes the dryness and monotony of Ernie’s world. The only signs of color are in the knitting that Ernie does, both as a way to cope with stress as a kid, as part of his job when he’s older, and as a way to help out the boy upstairs.
The narrative action and the overall expressiveness picks up when the two main characters begin to interact with one another. Though they have no dialogue as characters, the actors deliver their rich performances, particularly lead actor Gary Gorland as Ernie. Played as mild and quiet on the surface, he carries an air of existential despair within him. But he also possesses an innate kindness and sensitivity, which has an opportunity to bloom when he makes friends with his neighbor.
They’re also helped along by a rich and charming score, which adds life and vibrancy to the film’s forward movement, especially as the friendship between the man and the young boy grows. They see in one another a mutual solitude and loneliness, and come to one another’s rescue at a crucial moment when they need one another most.
The worldview of “Ernie” — imbued in its voiceover, its approach to emotion and its construction of character — is fascinating in that it doesn’t minimize human suffering. An undertow of melancholy suffuses the film, and both its main characters grapple with profound loneliness emerging from familial neglect and pain. Yet they are able to see one another through: the boy helps remind Ernie of what is worth living for, and Ernie gives the love and acceptance he wanted from his own father to the boy, serving as a father figure.
The ending of “Ernie” is sweet and heartwarming, but it is well-earned, especially in the midst of a world full of pain and dullness. Happiness doesn’t come in a vacuum for Ernie: it comes from looking out into the world, seeing himself in another and offering up kindness. In doing so, we not only help others but heal ourselves.