A black and white film set in the German capital of Berlin, Oh Boy spends a day in the life of Nico Fischer (Tom Shilling), a 27-year-old chancer who is still living the life of a student despite having abandoned his studies almost two years previously. Dumped by his girlfriend before he can even get out of bed, Nico must then skip breakfast in order to attend a mandatory appointment with his appointed psychiatrist.
However, things continue to go downhill even after he is found to be unfit to drive; his father terminates his allowance, he encounters a bitter ex-classmate (Friederike Kempter) in a bar, and is then dragged along to the set of an unpromising World War II film by his friend, an aspiring actor (Marc Hosemann).
Although described in the festival’s programme as a black comedy, Oh Boy isn’t so much funny as wonderfully ironic. The character of Nico is detached, unable to connect with those around him, and through his eyes we bear witness to a world awash with idiosyncratic strangers and absurd situations. Although exaggerated, this heightened reality is immediately recognisable and incredibly easy to empathise with — whether Nico is searching for love, money or the merest cup of coffee.
This is largely thanks to Tom Shilling, whose slacker is as charming as he is sympathetic. The world really does seem to be against him, and as his efforts are thwarted at every turn you find yourself warming to him even more. Shilling, surely the German doppelgänger of James McAvoy, plays the role with just the right amount of latent frustration; he never snaps, instead riding the waves of disaster with a resigned passivity, even managing to doze off in an elderly woman’s recliner while his friend scores drugs from her street-smart son in the next room.
The decision to shoot in back and white serves the film well, with director Jan-Ole Gerster painting Berlin in a novel if not necessarily new light. With cigarette smoke hanging in the air and the city rendered in stylish monochrome it takes on an air of timelessness, glamour and romance. The muted colour palette also serves to reflect Nico’s own despondence, adding to the disconnect from reality. Cinematographer Philipp Kirsamer has lensed a very handsome film, but relies less on the contrast between light and shadow and more on the format’s ability to build atmosphere and set a scene.
Wryly acted and beautifully shot, Oh Boy is a delight from start to finish. Although rarely laugh-out-loud funny, the film is nevertheless very amusing indeed, deriving comedy from the most mundane and familiar of situations — always at Nico’s expense. Honestly, you’ve never wanted to buy someone a cup of coffee more.