The Penny Black

Who knew collecting stamps could be so exciting?

(2020) Documentary (1091) Will Cassayd-Smith, Cheryl Baumbaugh, Alex Greer, Joe Saunders, Bonnie Collins, Allison, Roman. Directed by William J. Saunders

 

The Penny Black was the first self-adhesive stamp in history. It was first issued in 1840 and has a bit of an odd history. Because of its color, the British Post Office had to cancel the stamps using red ink, which as it turned out was water soluble and could be washed, allowing the canny to reuse the stamps. The British, who are nothing if not problem solvers, simply put out new stamps called Penny Reds which could be canceled with black ink which was NOT water soluble. Problem solved.

As you can guess, those stamps which are over 175 years old, are fairly valuable. But why, pray tell, are we interested in this old stamp? Well, meet Will Cassayd-Smith, an affable young Millennial living in Los Angeles. He sometimes would go outside his apartment to smoke, and there he would often meet one of his neighbors, a man with a heavy Russian accent he knew only as Roman. The two men got to know each other and often went out to local bars to have a few adult beverages. One night, when Roman had more than a few, he prevailed upon Will to watch a package for him. He’s been fighting with his wife, you see, and he doesn’t want to leave it with her because she might sell it just to spite him. Will says sure, Roman thanks him and says he’ll be back in two weeks.

Two weeks come and go and Roman doesn’t return. Will becomes concerned and takes a look at the package and finds one large book, two smaller books and several loose leaf pages – all filled with stamps. And, when weeks stretch into months, Will takes the collection to be appraised and discovers that there are more than a few stamps worth tens of thousands of dollars, including the Penny Black – which, incidentally, isn’t the most valuable stamp in the collection.

Will is beginning to freak out. He never counted on having to be responsible for something of that value. And what happened to Roman? How did he come by these stamps? The more Will finds out, the more unsettled he becomes. His friend, a sports documentary producer, becomes involved in chronicling the tale for Will.

But Will has a checkered past of his own. His father, from whom he’s estranged, was a con artist who forged documents and artwork, before being deported for his crimes. And Will suddenly has a brand new car, followed up by a brand new sailboat. How did he get them? Gifts. But one of the stamp books is missing. Where did it go? Will is vague. He doesn’t remember. Maybe when he and his girlfriend Alison broke up and he moved out, it accidentally got thrown out. Sounds a bit sketchy to me.

And that’s kind of the point. If ever there was a poster boy for unreliable narration, it’s Will. Saunders wisely doesn’t let you know what he thinks about the whole situation, other than it sounds fishy. He seems to accept Will’s explanations at face value, and that’s not hard to do because Will is doing and saying the right things. He has hired a private detective to look into finding the whereabouts of Roman. He also explores the possibility that the collection was stolen, talking to a woman in Arizona who reported a sizable theft of stamps from her grandfather’s estate. Are these stamps from that collection? We never find out definitively.

And that’s where the genius of the movie comes in – this isn’t a movie about explanations. You pretty much have to find your own. And when Roman does finally show up, things get really tense and crazy, but we are still left with far more questions than answers. One begins to wonder how legitimate Will’s tale is. And then one wonders if the filmmakers are in on it if it’s not. That’s brilliant filmmaking.

There are some hiccups. The soundtrack is overbearing and intrusive. One would have wished for less music, or at least something a little less obvious. The story also has a tendency to make abrupt cuts from one direction to the other; that may well have been how it developed in real time, but it still feels choppy.

We live in untrustworthy times. We view our neighbors with suspicion and our only friends are online, well beyond arm’s length. The movie isn’t commenting on that directly, but trustworthiness is certainly a major component of the movie. The story is compelling enough to hold your interest from beginning to end, at which time it directs you to the film’s website for further details. There are several deleted scenes available on the website, but no further clarity. And that’s perfectly fine by me. Some stories were never meant to be clear.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly intriguing story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is intrusive and overbearing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Slamdance in 2020.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder Death Koreatown
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

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