UPPER WEST SIDE — To longtime residents and even newcomers, the familiar streets between the Hudson River and Central Park from Columbus Circle to the West 100s can feel a lot like a small town.
"Putzel," an independent film written, directed and starring a group of veteran Upper West Siders, examines both the beauty and drawbacks of such a homey neighborhood.
Now, after hitting the film festival circuit, the movie's producers have released it on multiple online services in the hopes of finding a wide audience for the feature.
"It’s a bittersweet romantic comic fable... about a late-20s protagonist trying to break out of a mold," explained director Jason Chaet.
In the film, Jack Carpenter plays Walter "Putzel" Himmelstein, whose whole life has centered around his family's fish store — based on the legendary Barney Greengrass — and whose nickname is the source of the movie's title.
But his uncle's romantic involvement with Sally, a wannabe Broadway dancer, threatens Putzel's inheritance of his uncle's store. He intervenes in their relationship and eventually realizes his own potential beyond the neighborhood.
Comedian and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" actress Susie Essman, who in reality has lived in the neighborhood for decades, is the film's biggest star. She plays Putzel's overbearing aunt in a role that's not unfamiliar to fans of the hit HBO series but one that offered her greater character depth.
"She brings the 'Susie Strength' and she’s still funny, but she gets to act and be a little maternal and deal with some slightly heavier stuff in the movie," Chaet said.
In the fall of 2008, Chaet started kicking around the idea for the film with his friend and neighbor Rick Moore, the movie's screenwriter.
Chaet realized it had been about five months since he'd left the confines of his neighborhood, so he decided his beloved Upper West Side should be at the center of the film.
As well as a coming-of-age story, "Putzel" is an homage to the area's mom-and-pop stores, charm and history, the director explained.
"We love the character of the Upper West Side," he said. "We don’t want New York to be homogenized."
With only a $200,000 budget, the filmmakers needed to harness the benefits of being locals, Chaet said.
During Passover in 2011, the filmmakers took over 72nd Street Bagels, which was closed for the holiday, and turned it into the fictional fish store for a small fee.
The Abbey Pub, which always full of regulars and local students, offered up its space as well.
"The Upper West Side is such a great backdrop," Chaet noted. "[The film] looks very expensive."
The movie wrapped in the fall of 2012 and set out on the film festival circuit, hitting more than 50 festivals. The filmmakers didn't have enough funding to give it a theatrical release, but they're betting on "Putzel" having a long life by focusing their energies online.
Last week, "Putzel" was released on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, XBox, Google Play, Sony and Vudu, with the help of the marketing and distribution company Film Buff.
Online, "Putzel" is "competing with these movies that have real brand names," Chaet acknowledged, but he was reassured by positive word-of-mouth reviews the movie has received.
It's been popular in places far from New York City with people who identify with the main character getting stuck in a rut, as well as with its upbeat sensibility, the director said.
The filmmakers are hoping ads plastered on subway and on bus shelters, purchased on the cheap through the city's Made in New York program, will help spread the word even more in the coming weeks.
Click here to watch "Putzel."