The Same Storm Review: Elaine May Steals the Best Zoom Drama the Pandemic Has Produced So Far

The biggest problem with Pandemic Cinema — an emergent sub-genre largely defined by well-meaning dramas in which famous actors and/or opportunistic up-and-comers struggle with Zoom calls, sterilize their groceries, and otherwise memorialize the morbid tedium of the last 18 months — is that these movies are so hellbent on making us feel seen that they don’t have much to show us in return. Star-studded films such as “Locked Down” and “Together” and festival indies like “The End of Us” all strive to consecrate the surreality of love during the time of COVID, but they’re invariably overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their signifiers. Distanced learning, virtual family meetings, banging pots and pans in support of essential workers at 7 p.m… Representation is one of the most powerful gifts that art can provide; self-recognition is something you can get for free from the bathroom mirror.

And then there’s the fact that the virus has mutated faster than the movies people have made in response to it. Lockdowns have given way to surging variants, vaccines have triggered deadly waves of misinformation, and the isolation that shadowed the first months of the pandemic has been usurped by sociopathic levels of greed, apathy, and distrust. In the fall of 2021, even the best quarantine drama can’t help but feel a bit quaint — less valuable as a contemporary work of art than as a museum piece in whatever memorial we eventually build to remember this shitstorm of a time.

And Peter Hedges’ “The Same Storm” — despite its outworn premise and the ham-fisted clunkiness that tends to come with it — is the best quarantine drama this pandemic has produced so far. It’s also hopefully the last, but we can’t hold that against it. A screen-life saga with such a deep ensemble cast and so many overlapping storylines that it sometimes feels a few coincidences away from turning into “COVID, Actually,” Hedges’ mosaic is as guilty of coronavirus box-checking as the rest of its ilk (one of its many discrete segments mentions COVID Toe and Andrew Cuomo in the span of just a few seconds).

And yet it transcends (or at least expands) the limits of its genre for two distinct reasons. The first is that the “La Ronde” structure of Hedges’ screenplay — divided into some two dozen video calls, most of which pass the baton between a character from the previous chat and their newly introduced parent, partner, therapist, etc. — helps complicate the genre’s Hallmark-ready plea for connection by leveraging its implicit loneliness into a more nuanced exploration of what it is that we need from each other. The second major asset of Hedges’ film is a sparkling ensemble cast of restless actors, all of whom work from inside their own homes (which they had to dress and shoot themselves).

To emphasize that point, “The Same Storm” begins with a quick glimpse behind the curtain, as we see Hedges coordinating a mass Zoom call with the whole gang (technically they’re using some combination of Cisco and Webex), a self-reflexive gamble that immediately emphasizes the way in which their jobs have brought these people together. That flash of artifice helps soften the borders of the film’s limited verisimilitude and contextualizes the circular story that follows for its insights into the ways that COVID has revealed how work and communication have grown so entwined in the modern world.

That aspect is front and center from the moment Hedges switches into fiction mode, kicking things off with a Zoom yoga class that ends with a woman named Dionne (“The Undoing” standout Noma Dumezweni) nervously talking to her instructor about a call she’s expecting from the hospital; in “The Same Storm,” every video conference is a therapy session of some kind or another. That call soon comes from a Nurse Joey (Raúl Castillo), who doesn’t have great news about the condition of Dionne’s COVID-suffering husband. It’s Joey’s job to man the “goodbyiPad” at the Queens hospital where he’s staffed, and he tries to soften the trauma of his shifts by calling on a different kind of essential worker when he gets home: A cam girl — nay, cam woman — played by Mary-Louise Parker. Their relationship may be transactional, but it still puts them in touch.

Even the calls between family members reflect on the role money plays in facilitating communication during sick capitalism; a long-overdue FaceTime (or whatever) between Parker’s character and her estranged mother is framed by the assumption that cash is the only reason they ever bother to talk. Oh, I’ve buried the lede: The mother is played by Elaine May(!) in her first film performance in 21 years. Not only is it inherently funny to see the perfectionist responsible for the likes of “Ishtar” and “A New Life” in a movie scotch-taped together with consumer electronics and whatever props people had lying around their houses, May delivers the movie’s most tragicomic performance in the role of a widowed yenta who won’t let a little fever stop her from sharing her tsuris. Watching her smush an iPad halfway up her nostrils during each video call is the kind of “my mom does that” shtick that should epitomize the worst of Pandemic Cinema, and yet when May is so brilliant at blurring the line between silly gags and withering realness that even bits like that maintain a hilarious specificity.

From there, Hedges’ cast swells to include Daphne Rubin-Vega as May’s aid, Camila Perez as the aid’s daughter, David Zaldivar as her older brother, an especially strong Moses Ingram as his activist girlfriend, Broadway star K. Todd Freeman as her self-conflicted Black cop dad, and so on. Some of the scenes feel like intimate windows into personal relationships, while others — often but not always the ones that hinge on macro issues like social justice, mental illness, Trumpism, and interracial dating at the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests — bite off so much more than they can chew that they eventually just cough it all back up.

During the second half of “The Same Storm,” in which the movie has to recompose itself after briefly (and unhelpfully) scrambling its elegant structure, many of the vignettes work in spite of themselves. A Zoom call between a frustrated mom (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her son’s fifth-grade teacher (Alison Pill, reprising her “Snowpiercer” role) proves raw and revealing despite the sweatiness of its setup. Meanwhile, the following group FaceTime between Pill’s character and her politically divided brothers — two MAGA stereotypes and a clean-cut gay liberal ready to pull the ripcord if his sister votes for Trump again — is so broad that only a group of actors this talented could manage to find a measure of truth in it.

The sum of Hedges’ film is greater than any of its parts, even if its parts are not always worthy of the people who have been hired to play them. Individual scenes feel flat, but even the least effective of them contribute to the larger web in some way, and the touching final call that brings this curio full circle effectively articulates how our isolation has only made us all more essential to each other — whether we’re doing the work we’re paid for, or the work that we’re born into. As goes the Damian Barr quote from which this movie gets its title: “We’re not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm.”

Grade: B-

“The Same Storm” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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