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Peter Hedges’ The Same Storm is not the first film to reflect the restrictions and tragedies wrought by COVID-19. The recent film Together, starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan, dissected a relationship during lockdown. And last year’s HBO drama Coastal Elites consisted of five interlocking monologues centering on characters affected by the pandemic as well as the Trump presidency. Now writer-director Hedges (Pieces of April; Ben Is Back, which starred his son Lucas Hedges) adds his take on the subject, with a series of poignant vignettes focusing on a variety of people whose lives were upended during the past year and a half.
Hedges took all precautions in filming more than two dozen actors. All were filmed in their own homes or workplaces, using cellphones, computers and Zoom formats that an expert technical crew helped the actors navigate. Hedges devised the script, inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s 19th century play La Ronde, which consists of vignettes that each involve two or three characters, with one of them leading into a new story with a new character, who then takes us forward to the next vignette. The structure of La Ronde isn’t followed religiously here, but it lends a certain elegance to the array of painful dramas.
Illness is only one of the tragedies depicted in the movie. The story begins with a woman (Noma Dumezweni) who’s worried about her husband in intensive care. The next episode shows the male nurse (Raúl Castillo) who spoke to her trying to relieve his stress with a sex worker (Mary-Louise Parker), who then communicates with her ailing but acerbic mother (brilliantly played by Elaine May).
Another outstanding sequence concerns the devastating psychological and emotional effects of lockdowns. The superb Sandra Oh plays a wealthy mother concerned about her son (Jin Ha), who is reeling under the imposed solitude and has stopped taking the medications he needs to control his schizophrenic tendencies. As Oh enlists the help of the young man’s doctor (Danny Burstein), the tensions escalate and lead to a shocking conclusion to the sequence. A later episode shows Oh as part of a large AA meeting conducted over Zoom, in which she confesses that the crisis with her son led her to take her first drink in more than two decades.
Another vignette reveals the harmful effects of the pandemic on children’s education. Real-life partners Ron Livingston and Rosemary DeWitt play a couple concerned about their son’s poor scores on his assignments from Zoom classes. They have a conference with their son’s teacher (Alison Pill), who isn’t as responsive as they would like in addressing the problems the boy is facing.
This leads into one of the less satisfying vignettes in the film, when Pill and her three brothers are planning a Zoom birthday celebration for their ailing mother (Judith Light). Pill’s gay, liberal brother (Cory Michael Smith) berates her for voting for Trump in 2016, and when their two redneck brothers (one sporting a MAGA hat) join the conversation, tensions escalate. This sequence seems overly didactic, and the right-wing brothers are rather stock figures.
The gay brother then has a conversation with his Black lover, Russell (Ato Blankson-Wood), and they argue about commitment issues in another segment that seems overlong and unilluminating. But the conclusion packs a wallop, when we learn of Russell’s connection to a character we met earlier.
Like La Ronde, The Same Storm closes the circle at the end, and Dumezweni’s powerhouse performance strikes the right mournful but modestly hopeful note as we exit the theater. In short, this film leaves us moved and provoked — and impressed with its technical accomplishments — even if it isn’t a perfect distillation of our ongoing national nightmare.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Distributor: Evenstar Films
Production companies: Straight Up Technologies, Home Plate Pictures
Cast: Noma Dumezweni, Raúl Castillo, Mary-Louise Parker, Elaine May, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Moses Ingram, K. Todd Freeman, Danny Burstein, Sandra Oh, Jin Ha, Ron Livingston, Rosemary DeWitt, Alison Pill, Cory Michael Smith, Judith Light, Ato Blankson-Wood
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