Rating: 3 out of 5.

“When you’re funny, people expect you to be funny all the time.” It’s a sentiment most comedians will be able to relate to, one whose mark has taken some of the greats like Robin Williams and John Candy. Itchy Fingers yearns to examine the psychological and mental toll that comedy takes on the brain; one single domino can topple the emotional hierarchy into a downward spiral of sadness and depression. Director/writer duo Anna Nilles and Marco Jake also seep their script with searing commentary about gun control, school shootings and cyclical violence. Somehow, even amongst the thematic heaviness, Itchy Fingers maintains a steady level of bizarre dark humor.

Ernie (Zachary Shultz) just wants to be a successful stand-up comedian. His work is going unnoticed—he keeps refreshing YouTube in an all-too-familiar reminder that his video still has zero views. A comment comes in: “there’s less laughter in the world, because you were born.” It’s all very disheartening, but when he sees an online ad, Ernie might have found a light at the end of the tunnel. He joins a youth theater group known as “4 Causes” who are developing their own stage production. Ernie gets cast in the part of the school shooter, which immediately doesn’t sit right with him. However, he decides to embrace the opportunity, and follow the rest of the troupe into rehearsals. Ernie’s own sanity begins to unravel as he questions his talent, his worth and his character’s disturbing motivations.

Itchy Fingers has some wild twists and turns, mainly in the film’s latter half. By this point, you are either fully invested in Ernie’s story, or it’s just not for you. The slow-burn nature of the narrative won’t be for everyone; however, I really enjoyed it overall. The smale-scale setting and its compact cast of characters make the most from a limited budget. An unsettling and bizarre ending leaves all the questions in the hand of the audience. A sick cycle of gun violence and tragedy constantly brings up the moral quandaries of playing out this production in the first place. More bizarre observations from Ernie, like snipers being “art students” and pistols being “nerds”, or “If I shoot up a school, maybe they’ll make a play about me” gave me an uneasy feeling. Zachary Shultz is so good as Ernie that he gave me chills. I cringed at Ernie’s awkward asides, and I was on board for his dramatic breakdowns. Come for the strange story, stay for the richness of the character study.

Itchy Fingers screened at the virtual Calgary Underground Film Festival, April 23rd – May 2nd.

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