Sundance 2021 review: On the Count of Three (Jerrod Carmichael)

It is possible that all narratives are about belonging, regardless to what or to whom, a country, a family, a person, or even to your own body. Maybe this happens because to an extent we are all lonely people looking for someone or something to connect with in hope of lightening this burden. Our narratives simply reflect this need which appears at the center of Jerrod Carmichael’s exquisite debut feature, On the Count of Three, a film about two friends and their unconditional love for each other, exactly because each one is a place the other can call home and feel understood.

Kevin (Christopher Abbott) is hospitalized after a failed suicide attempt, one of many. It is through him, in a therapy session right at the beginning of the film, that the audience learns the tone of the story they are engaging with: “If you were in my head you would understand!” he screams. The narrative never attempts to psychoanalyze its characters; we are not in their heads, there is no point. What we know is that Kevin tried to kill himself and is ready to try again as soon as he leaves that place. Val (Jerrod Carmichael), on the other hand, despite not being institutionalized, never seems to care about anything, his apathy towards life leading him to a dark place in which there is also only one way out: killing himself.

However, despite the heavy and dense opening, the tone changes completely after Kevin and Val get together again, and as they make a suicide pact they give each other one final day to deal with any unresolved business. Herein lies the real story of On the Count of Three, a love story between Kevin and Val, a deep friendship. A shared feeling of understanding that Kevin never got from his family or therapists, nor Val from his girlfriend, soon to be the mother of his first child. “It hurts to be ignored,” Kevin shouts while being mistreated by a cashier in a pharmacy; more than shouting because of that particular situation, he is shouting at the whole world at the top of his lungs. On the Count of Three is not an easy film to see and it does deal with dark themes, but despite all that talk about suicide and death, or perhaps exactly because of that, the small moments of affection resonate more. It is beautiful to see how in a world so dull they never miss the opportunity to say “I love you” to each other. This is a suicide story, this is a trauma story, but this is also a love story.

Perhaps On the Count of Three is like the Japanese shinju narratives, the ones about a suicide pact between lovers who cannot find a place to fit in the world but in themselves. On the Count of Three’s screenplay cleverness, however, comes from subverting this structure, by telling a story in which suicide does not appear as the final goal but as the beginning or the trigger that propels its characters’ actions. The pact has been made; more than the outcome, what matters most is the path they will take to get there.

Ultimately, as they drive across the city, it gets more and more obvious that both have been carrying a load bigger than they should. Some things can be worked out, others cannot, so why carry them in the first place? And why carry them by themselves? As Val jokes, “Quitting is amazing. It means no more doing the things you hate.” What their journey teaches is that quitting does not only apply to our jobs, schools, or relationships; the same goes for our memories and traumas. On this account all stories are about belonging, and in a society in which there was no place for them Kevin and Val found that in each other in a sense. As the great Japanese writer Osamu Dazai once put it: “People talk of ‘social outcasts’. The words apparently denote the miserable losers of the world, the vicious ones, but I feel as though I have been a ‘social outcast’ from the moment I was born. If ever I meet someone society has designed as an outcast, I invariably feel affection for them, an emotion which carries me away in melting tenderness.” And such emotion is abundant in On the Count of Three.