Unfortunate timing brings the latest of a string of “Zoom” films set during the COVID lockdown, “The Same Storm,” to theaters and home streaming after the funniest outing in the genre, “7 Days,” long after the solid drama “Together” and the higher profile projects filmed in this split-screen/isolated style like “Locked Down.”
But the latest from writer-director Peter Hedges, who gave us “Pieces of April,” “Dan in Real Life” and “Ben is Back,” finds its first laughs quickly, and achieves its first tears within a scene or two. There’s tragedy to come, and irritation, loneliness and loss.
The heightened navel-gazing that the pandemic and its life-and-society-put-on-pause produced gave everyone doses of pain, worry, melodrama and political outrage. And that’s all here in this 24+ character collage, which takes its title from a quote from Scottish writer, broadcaster and wit Damien Barr.
“We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm.”
The relay-race narrative links characters together, one connection at a time. There’s the woman
(Noma Dumezweni) who struggles through a Zoom yoga class, only to get a call from a nurse (Raúl Castillo), his face bruised by the DIY PPE goggles, who has to pass on the news that her husband had to be intubated.
He becomes a comforter, struggling with the added responsibilities that an overloaded (New York) system lays on him. So when a fishnet-stockinged online sex worker (Mary-Louise Parker) greets a “Man from Queens,” it’s no surprise that it’s him, Nurse Joey.
And when they’ve worked through his “Wait, how old are you?” issues and her “granny” and “early bird special” insults, he shares that iPads have become “Goodbye pads” for so many. Roxy lets down her brusque front for a moment of tribute.
And then she moves on to a chat with her isolated mother (the great Elaine May). Talk about a conversation worth listening in on.
Mom: “Get a job?”
“Is it essential?”
I like to think so.
They bicker with the brittle bite of co-dependency. Daughter Roxy uses a euphemism to describe her work as a “counselor.” Not that anything impresses her kvetching grump of a mother.
“Do I stay on this call, or do I hang up and go to bed?”
On and on the connections unfold, this health-care worker sending her son to hunt down a missing grandfather, teen lovers negotiating “Send me a photo” and we know what kind of photo, older paramours dancing on camera, serenading each other by ukulele.
Sandra Oh plays a mother checking in on her children, one of whom is having sex and the other is “off his meds” (Jin Ha, a stand-out in this star-spangled cast).
Ron Livingston and Rosemarie DeWitt play comically-frazzled careerist parents throwing themselves at this “school at home” environment, and drowning as they do. Of course the poor teacher (Alison Pill) bears the brunt of their meltdown.
But that’s nothing compared to what the teacher’s gay journalist brother (Corey Michael Smith) endures from their MAGA/anti-masking family (Joshua Leonard and John Gallagher Jr.) and their cancer-stricken mother (Judith Light).
A cop father (K.Todd Freeman) frets over his “Black Lives Matter” protester daughter (Moses Ingram). Can an online memorial service be in the cards? Some folks figure this is a good time to double-down on AA meetings, thanks to the horrific stress of the situation.
By design and by definition, movies like this are “uneven.” Some sequences are more relatable, more entertaining or more moving than others. All of the films of this COVID-generated genre have their limitations. But Hedges, seen in the film’s Zoom prologue greeting the actors, gauging everybody’s technical savvy to see who’s up for tracking shots and trickier framing and who is Comedy Legend Elaine May and doesn’t need to know that, ensures that this is one of the most emotional (his “brand”) and also the best-crafted.
Of all the Zoomed pandemic movies, big budget and small, the brilliant storyboarding, concise scripting, motivated and moving performances (direction) and editing of “The Same Storm” make this the one they ought to teach in film schools. And of all the lockdown films, this is the one that brings back the fullest range of experiences, emotions, fears, fury and hope of 2020.
Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: Sandra Oh, Mary-Louise Parker, K. Todd Freeman, Ron Livingston, Moses Ingram, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jin Ha, Judith Light, Rosemarie DeWitt, Joshua Leonard, Corey Michael Smith,
Noma Dumezweni, John Gallagher Jr., Camila Perez, Alison Pill and Elaine May.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Peter Hedges. A Juno release.
Running time: 1:39