Listen, I know how it sounds. I know the words “COVID drama” make you want to run screaming in the other direction. But you can’t run that far, being stuck in your apartment and all. So you might as well sit down and hear the tale of how SXSW, thanks to its placement on the yearly festival calendar, is stacked with films about COVID-19. Given that this was the first major film festival to go virtual because of the virus last year, that means that filmmakers have had an entire year to get their pandemic-era projects together and submit them to SXSW’s second virtual edition. Much of this year’s lineup is still composed of films completed before the pandemic, but we’re going to burn through the rest of those eventually. Like it or not, at least in the world of indie movies, COVID is going to be with us for a while longer.
For some of these films, the link is explicit. This year’s SXSW narrative film lineup includes a movie about exes who are stuck quarantining together, a movie about sisters who take a pandemic road trip to rescue their grandmother from a COVID outbreak at her nursing home, and a movie about a drifter who returns home to see her daughter, only to be denied access to her because of COVID. And of course the virus looms over the documentary slate, which includes a first-person perspective on the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China from director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) as well as multiple looks at artists creating in lockdown. But the most celebrated COVID-era projects at SXSW are ones that either keep the virus in the background of their stories or find ways to work around it entirely.
Writer-director-producer-star Kelley Kali received a special jury award for her micro-budget film I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking), which the jury notes was “financed in part by stimulus relief checks.” The main thrust of the film is a day-in-the-life portrait of recently widowed mom Danny (Kali), who’s living in a tent with her 8-year-old daughter after losing their housing in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Danny is just $200 away from securing a new apartment, and spends the majority of the film rollerskating around quarantine-era Los Angeles trying to rustle up the funds in gig-economy style. Danny tells her daughter that they’re just camping, and when she complains that she “wants to go home,” she tells her, “You used to love camping with your dad!” That same put-on-a-happy-face attitude applies to the film as a whole, which remains light and charming despite its protagonist’s desperate dilemma—one that many people have found themselves in after losing jobs during the pandemic.
Although its structure is a dead giveaway that it was filmed in 2020, COVID doesn’t come up at all in Language Lessons, a take on the Zoom movie from co-writer and director Natalie Morales’ (a.k.a. Lucy from Parks And Recreation). Aside from a cinematographer, a production manager, and post-production crew, Language Lessons was created entirely by Morales and co-star Mark Duplass, who plays the bored spouse of a wealthy choreographer in Oakland, California. At the beginning of the film, Adam (Duplass) is gifted two years’ worth of Spanish classes with Cariño (Morales), an expat who gives online lessons from her home in Costa Rica, by his husband Will (Desean Terry). We never see Will on camera, only hear him, which leads me to presume that Terry was not actually present on set due to COVID protocols.
A dramatic twist at the beginning of the film leaves Adam all alone in his and Will’s stylishly appointed mansion, with seemingly no family or close friends to comfort him. Cariño, who’s as sweet and good-hearted as her nickname implies, steps in to support him from afar, and Language Lessons unfolds in a series of FaceTime messages and Zoom calls (with one high-def static shot that’s startling in its clarity after all that pixelation) as the duo become very close in a very short period of time. The format of the film means that acting and dialogue are everything in Language Lessons; the class and race dynamics between Adam and Cariño are established by what little we can see of their surroundings on a webcam, and a major dramatic conflict is revealed when Cariño’s camera accidentally switches on during a voice call. The humor is rooted in Duplass butchering his halting Spanish—at one point, he mixes up the words for “embarrassed” and “pregnant”—and subtle facial expressions say what Morales’ character cannot.
Luckily, Morales and Duplass have the chemistry and the acting chops to carry this unexpectedly moving story about platonic love and the artificial sense of intimacy that can come both with online friendships and shared grief. When Morales tells Duplass, “You’re not my friend, you’re my student,” walking back the last dozen messages they sent each other—ones sharing their innermost feelings under the guise of conversation practice en español—the sentiment hit much harder than I expected reluctantly pressing “play” on a movie filmed over Zoom. It’s a more conventional film than We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, a favorite of both mine and A.A. Dowd’s from this year’s Sundance that deals in similar themes in more boundary-pushing ways. But if movies filmed with minimal crew and actors who can’t be in the same room at the same time are an inevitability—and it does seem as though they are–this is the way to do it.