If someone you didn’t know asked you to hold items valued at over a million dollars, would you do it?
That’s kind of at the bottom of a documentary by Joe Saunders and Alexander Greer, The Penny Black.
Saunders, the director, met Will Cassayd-Smith through Greer, and Will had a crazy story to tell. It was just crazy enough that Saunders took the bait, and filming on The Penny Black began the next day.
According to Will, Roman, a Russian neighbor of his that did a lot of smoking outside of the building, off the cuff asked Will to watch a bag of expensive stamps for him.
Before leaving them in Will’s care, Roman told him that he has two wives and two sets of kids, one in Los Angeles, where they were, and one in Arizona. But should Roman not return in two weeks, he should release the stamps to no one but his mother, Lydia.
The stamps were in books inside a black duffle, and Will was excited to share his quest and/or good fortune with Saunders and Greer. He seemed to enjoy being on camera, sharing parts of himself as they investigated the value of the stamps.
When two weeks became two months, the story took on a different meaning, much of which rests on the backbone of Will’s father, who was a gifted conman with wicked forgery skills who regularly sold things he didn’t own.
Will’s father left when he was six, seemingly hauled off by federal authorities for scamming people out of their fortunes. Will and his mother lost everything.
Still, Will’s recollection of his father is flattering, even loving. He notes that the man was a good, loving father who just so happened to be a sociopathic liar.
For Will to have found himself in circumstances so similar doesn’t come to him. As he visits stamp shows and does personal evaluations of what is inside of that duffle, Saunders and Greer begin to see a connection between Will and his father that they can’t dismiss.
Will speaks of integrity and wanting to be an honest person at the same time he’s perusing sailboat sales on his computer. It’s hard not to wonder if he’s got plans for those stamps that don’t include returning them to Roman.
Still, Will goes to great lengths at Saunders and Greer’s urging to find Roman and return what is rightfully his.
As that avenue hits dead ends, they consider how a man like Roman might have come into their possession, which leads them to a relative of an Arizona man who had such a collection that was stolen and under investigation.
The trail takes the filmmakers in many different directions, and the longer they’re working with Will, the less faith they have in his story.
At one point, Will describes his father as affable, articulate, nice, and smart. The same could be said for Will.
But when one of the books of stamps goes missing, the hunt is on for its location and the truth behind why it went missing.
The poster gets it right. Saunders plays this as a dark noir, with truth circling the story but always elusive.
Included in one of the books of stamps is a Penny Black, the very first stamp in the world. Or, maybe not. The stamps are not well protected, and they were left even further unprotected with an acquaintance.
Would Roman have truly left such a valuable collection in the hands of a relative stranger? And would Will have really jumped the gun so quickly to get it all down on camera?
The Penny Black isn’t a complicated story, but it plays with the truth. Or, perhaps, it was played by the truth.
I’m not sure that Saunders had any better understanding of Will and what went down with Roman at the end of the film than he did at the beginning, but the filmmakers had fun teasing connections and flirting with integrity, whether Will’s, Roman’s, or their own.
This fast and compelling narrative leaves viewers searching for the truth on screen and in their own lives, as the reality of who can be trusted seems just out of reach.
The Penny Black is streaming on all major VOD platforms, including Apple, Amazon, Google, and Vudu.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.