As filmmakers were forced to adjust to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, the SXSW film slate for 2021 is a good indicator of the many ways it has altered cinema. Many movies were visually and tonally affected by our ‘new normal’ from 2020. Filmmakers had to create narratives around ideas of social distancing, lack of access to indoor dining, and some, like Natalie Morales, filmed their entire movies on Zoom. It’s a good indicator of what kinds of boundaries and forms were pushed and utilized to create movies that probably may not have existed at all if not for the spatial and geographic constraints of the pandemic. Cinema, after all, can be a gateway to a reflection of life and times.

I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) – dir. Kelley Kali & Angelique Molina

I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking) (2021) – source: SXSW

I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) is one of the most nerve-wracking, high-stakes dramas since Uncut Gems. In the history of movies where “what can go wrong will go wrong”, most of them have a dour or cynical tone and atmosphere clouding all of the ongoing plot-points. What sticks out about Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina’s film is its setting, painted with highlighter colors and a sun-dipped sheen, reminiscent of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project or Tangerine – that completely belies the heartbreak and anxiety that is palatable throughout the whole movie. It has the energy and verve of a quirky indie but is weighted with real-world problems that are relatable and speak to a greater socio-economic crisis that is affecting hundreds of thousands of American lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The central character Danny (Kelley Kali), is a recently-widowed mom living with her daughter Wes (Wesley Moss) in a tent by a hiking trail – a temporary home until Danny can collect enough money to put up a down-payment for a home. The homeowner gives Danny one extra day to get enough money to make the payment before he gives the home to someone else. As the clock ticks and the sun travels across the sky, Danny taps every resource she has, from her clients who she does braids for, to a close friend of her husband who just came upon an inheritance, to the owner of a barber-shop that doubles as a pawn-shop, and even making deliveries for a meal-app.

The infiation of a “gig economy” in daily American life is showcased in the movie as lucrative in terms of allowing people to command their own hours and clients as “small business owners”, but unstable and precarious in the cost and payment model. Danny juggles so many different responsibilities just to make by, but it’s a house of cards – one false move or one gust of wind, and it can come toppling down in an instant. In the same fashion of Ken Loach’s heartbreaking I, Daniel Blake, which pit its central character against a convoluted healthcare system, I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) pits a hard-working mother against a slowly collapsing façade of an American Dream where the journey is definitely not the real destination.

Language Lessons – dir. Natalie Morales

Language Lessons (2021) – source: SXSW

The pandemic has focused filmmakers’ attention in more ways than just economics. For Natalie Morales, it became an opportunity to redefine the traditional “romantic dramedy”. Almost 23 years after You’ve Got Mail brought new technology into the central plot of a male-female dynamic, Language Lessons brings Cariño (Natalie Morales, also the film’s writer/director) and Adam (Mark Duplass, the film’s co-writer) together through Zoom calls where the former is the latter’s Spanish instructor. Adam is much more proficient than initially perceived and the conversations continue over a year or more through jokes, life stories, and eventually some darker secrets.

It’s not that these types of movies aren’t ‘my thing’, but the limitations of a dual-screen/dual-character driven dramedy catch up to the viewer early on. Unlike more inventive films – Transformers: The Premake, Unfriended, or Searching to name a few – which take the computer’s façade and build layers through its many interfaces and applications, including dual-function multi-tasking features which re-define the concept of “multiple points of action”, what we see in Language Lessons is really just a scripted Zoom call. And it doesn’t really feature actors who are giving great performances either (Mark Duplass is particularly annoying and hammy in this). There’s an awkward, forced level of tragic and weighty drama elements that just miss the emotional mark completely through the act of two people staring at a camera through their computer.

From Adam’s husband’s death to Cariño’s hidden personality traits, it’s the bare bones of what could be an interesting character drama if it were to take place in three-dimensions. Instead, what we get is more like a glorified script-reading panel. The most interesting facet of the movie happens actually right at the beginning where we’re confused as to what is going when Cariño logs onto the Zoom meeting but someone is whispering to her off-camera. It’s the only part of the movie which is actually kind of funny, in a weird way, and foreshadows continued hijinks that take full advantage of the computer-screen platform the movie uses as its canvass. Instead, it’s just satisfied with two talking heads making an occasional joke and then droning on about their problems.

Islands – dir. Martin Edralin

Islands (2021) – source: SXSW

What I liked about Islands is how it mixes the immigrant experience and traditional cultural dynamics on non-Western families with the incompatibility of Western forms of social interaction and love. Islands is probably the closest thing you can get to an actual “incel movie”, where the central character’s inability to form any sort of even remotely interesting relationship with a woman has relegated him to a life of full dependency on the attention of his parents. Then, a major problem arises… his mother passes away and his father’s health starts to deteriorate.

Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) is a middle-aged man who has never had a relationship and is generally a non-functioning part of society. He is shy, doesn’t communicate with people, and instinctively avoids social interactions – his coworkers invite him for lunch but he simply says “no, thank you”. While Islands can deteriorate a veritable narrative slog that resembles the pace and unfeeling of Joshua’s general life, it doesn’t pander. A major virtue of the movie lies in the fact that it treats its central character as both at fault for his own circumstance but never as a lightning-rod for mockery or preconceptions about his politics/beliefs on women.

When his second cousin Marisol (Vangie Alcasid) comes to move in, it’s a very awkward situation. The natural instinct, despite the family relation, is for Joshua to slowly start having feelings for Marisol, and the movie does this in bit pieces that completely de-sensationalize this aspect. Director Martin Edralin deftly handles the uncomfortably intimate moments that Joshua goes through, from his masturbation – before which he carefully turns the gaze of several Biblical figurines on his bookshelf away from him – to reveal the loneliness and lack of companionship in his life. “I can’t change who I am,” he says.

The movie’s main drawback comes from its pace and repetitiveness of its scenes. While this does compliment the boring nature of Joshua’s existence, there are ways to exhibit his sad-sack, arid nature while maintaining inertia in the camera and editing’s form and function. Islands may be difficult to get through because of its deliberate monotonousness but can reveal in bits and pieces the humanity in the loneliness that gets ignored too often in cinema. While Joshua is a frustrating character, he is not irredeemable, and rather than treat him like a lost soul to be saved, Edralin’s film confronts the reality that improvement or change in one’s life can come in many forms.

I’m Fine Thanks for Asking, Language Lessons, and Islands had their World Premiers at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival from March 16-20th. 

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