Victor is a barber. He cuts hair and shaves his clients, listening to their endless stream of problems and opinions, silently going about his work as they jabber -- and often imagining delivering gristly ends of them.
He never does any of the acts of violence he imagines, but the people take a toll on him anyway. But when a young boy, Theo, enters his shop, the conversation proves unexpectedly thought-provoking and soul-stirring, bringing him face to face with the darker parts of who he has become.
Written and directed by "Hemlock Grove" actor Landon Liboiron, this short dark comedy has the folksy veneer of its barbershop setting, infused with the warmth of the potential community that salons and barbershops are known for, and this mellow warmth is underlined by a nostalgic-sounding orchestral score evoking a more civilized, carefree past. But this sunny atmosphere skews dark, becoming a character portrait of a man slowly being pushed to his edge.
Whether barbers or hairstylists, the grooming professions often see people at their most unvarnished and intimate, for better or worse. For Victor, it skews towards the worse end of the spectrum, and as he faces his panoply of clients throughout a long day, he's faced with an unrelenting stream of toxic negativity, complaints, harangues and rants. The storytelling reveals an arch, dark wit in building up the ugliness of humanity Victor confronts as he does his humble job, coupled with the gristly ends he imagines for each man. It's a way for him to vent his irritation and growing stress, for Victor never breaks his demeanor of calm, courteous professionalism, though moments of irritation -- barely veiled by a professional courtesy -- poke through now and then.
Actor Arye Gross balances Victor's many layers beautifully, revealing an almost gentlemanly politesse in his work, a growing repugnance of his fellow man and the lengths he goes to hide this. But that act starts to crumble when a boy named Theo -- played by young actor Marcello Silva -- comes in, asking for a shave despite the lack of stubble on his cheeks. Victor is irritated and startled by the request, but indulges Theo. The young boy is curious, sometimes impertinent and as voluble as Victor's other clients, which prompts Victor's imaginary vicious ire.
But Theo is also too young to whine and complain, and he's genuinely interested in hearing from Victor, particularly when he asks him a starkly existential question. The conversation takes on an unvarnished, painful and deep turn, as Victor gives voice to his building misanthropy. But when it hits Theo a certain way, he must also confront the inner monster he's become.
"Theo" is much like its central namesake character: it has a peaceable unhurried surface in its bright, cleanly cheerful visual look and sound, but its psychological underpinnings are altogether thornier and more serious, even philosophical. Through Victor's arc, we as viewers also are asked to engage in questions about our life purpose, as well as how the role of death and the afterlife inform how we live and treat others in the present. It gives voice to the everyday yet no less horrific terror we face at the meaninglessness of it all and the pettiness of fellow human beings. But in its final interactions, it offers a fragile illustration of a way out of the quagmire: a gesture of kindness, and a hard look in the mirror.