Little Fish (2021)

As if it’s not already embarrassing enough that I’m a fully grown adult who treats every episode of the teens-in-peril melodrama Euphoria as appointment television, I have also spent a lot of my pandemic downtime watching its aughts-era prototype Skins for the first time.  Skins was an even more chaotic show than Euphoria in both its drama and its artistic quality, but I very much enjoyed catching up with its ludicrous teen-hedonist fantasies in recent months.  Maybe the most surprising thing about Skins is that—despite being a lasting cult favorite for horned-up, pilled-out Millennials—it didn’t launch many superstar careers for its revolving cast of troubled, adorable teens.  Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, and Nicolas Hoult are obvious major exceptions, but for the most part the Skins cast have grown up to be anonymous character actors on cable television (or, worse yet, in years-delayed fantasy movies about lovelorn mermaids).  The one omission from that list that baffles me most is Jack O’Connell, who played James Cook on the show’s second “cycle.”  Cook just felt like a star, even more so than the three lucky kids who became one (judging by their work as scrawny youths, not talented adults).

My favorite episode of Skins involves Cook winning a Class President election on a platform of pure anarchy, essentially tearing the school down in raucous celebration.  Jack O’Connell was such an infectiously chaotic screen presence on the show that it was inevitable Cook would drive the student body into a collective, decadent frenzy – a perfect tonal counterpoint to that episode’s melodrama romance A-plot.  Apparently nihilistic chaos was his default mode off-screen at the time as well, as his rampant substance abuse & party-hard lifestyle kept O’Connell in British tabloids for pretty much the entire time he was filming Skins in Bristol.  I didn’t know anything about his personal life while watching the show, but a lot of what makes Cook such a compelling character is the authenticity of his chaotic presence, so that off-screen bad boy reputation makes total sense.  That’s why it was such a relief to see O’Connell pop up in the much calmer, more cerebral sci-fi romance Little Fish from last year.  I was honestly a little worried about his long-term health after seeing him play Cook, so it was just great to see him out there doing well, getting work, looking sharp.

Little Fish is one of those eerily pandemic-appropriate movies that happened to come out at the “right” time despite filming pre-COVID – joining the likes of Spontaneous, The Pink Cloud, Vivarium, and She Dies Tomorrow.  Olivia Cooke narrates as the heartbroken lead: a young vet with an art photographer husband (O’Connell), both of whom are living through a near-future global health pandemic that causes the infected to lose their memory en masse.  It’s like a viral, involuntary version of the Eternal Sunshine procedure, where two people who are very much in love are horrified by the idea that they will soon forget each other; then we gradually watch it happen.  Little Fish is almost too grim to enjoy while a real-life global health pandemic lingers outside, since it’s the kind of sci-fi heartbreaker that asks questions like “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?”  Since it was adapted from a 2011 short story and wrapped production in 2019, you can’t fault the film too much for how bleakly it recalls life & love during the COVID-19 pandemic (although there is a morbid humor to COVID preventing its planned premiere at Tribeca in 2020).  Considered on its own terms outside that unforeseeable context, it’s a great little doomed romance with a mild sci-fi bent.

There’s a lot to admire about director Chad “Morris from America” Hartigan’s visual playfulness here.  He tells the story through a fractured, remixed timeline that evokes the slipperiness of even a healthy memory; and he subtly erases or mutates the details of replayed scenes to illustrate those memories fading forever.  He also finds ways to visually amplify the story’s romance (most notably in an intimate sex scene illustrated in De Palma split screens) and global-scale panic (most notably in the ominous military presence that rumbles outside) without drawing too much attention away from the core dramatic chemistry between Cooke & O’Connell.  For me, it’s O’Connell who’s the real draw here, but only because I was so recently fascinated with his performance as James Cook.  Like with Cook’s authentic onscreen chaos, his performance as the memory-drained husband reads as an authentic portrayal of a former addict who’s gracefully gotten his shit together, only to lose all that personal progress to a pandemic that’s out of his control.  O’Connell’s wonderfully effective in the role, so much so that I’m willing to forgive his flat approximation of an American accent.

I’ll spare everyone the embarrassment of trying to guess what future stars are currently brewing on the Euphoria cast, since I’ve already been extremely unfair in preemptively declaring the vast majority of the Skins kids culturally irrelevant.  They’re all still young; there’s plenty of time, as long as they take better care of themselves than the self-destructive characters that made them semi-famous.

-Brandon Ledet

Locked Down (2021)

Doug Liman’s COVID-themed, straight-to-HBO romcom Locked Down has seemingly hit a raw nerve for a lot of the pro critics who were assigned to cover it. What I found to be a low-key, innocuous charmer has been burdened with tons of handwringing about what Popular Art is allowed to be made & distributed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The collective complaint appears to be that movies should transport their audience away from the time & place we occupy, not dwell in it; or at least that being stuck in our domestic spaces for the past year has emphasized a need for pop culture escapism. Locked Down‘s major faux pas against good taste is in its desire to be of-the-moment, compromising its value as fluff entertainment by reminding us just how miserable it is to be alive in our confined, isolated worlds right now. It has critics gritting their teeth in guarded anticipation of more COVID-themed pop media to come, especially since ongoing lockdown restrictions continue to limit what can be made & distributed in the year. I just personally fail to see how any of this is intrinsically bad.

A lot of my openness to COVID-themed pop media is an extension of my interest in, of all things, social media-themed horror films. I do love a gimmicky exploitation flick that fixates on the distinctly modern evils of momentary novelties like Skype calls (Unfriended), ride-share apps (Spree), Facebook timelines (Friend Request), Instagram clout (Ingrid Goes West), camgirl chatrooms (Cam), and so on. Not only are these technophobic thrillers entertaining for their traditional genre payoffs, but they’re also culturally valuable for daring to document the particular inanities of what our lives look & feel like online in a way that the more respectable corners of Mainstream Cinema wouldn’t dare. In a way, Locked Down (along with other COVID-era productions) is a natural evolution of that kind of strike-while-the-iron’s-hot exploitation filmmaking. It’s blatantly capitalizing on the idiosyncrasies of surviving the past year by using them to flavor an otherwise superficial, well-behaved genre film. The only difference is that it’s hanging those of-the-moment details off of genres people usually take more seriously than the technophobic horror: the break-up drama, the romcom, the heist film, etc. Whether or not that kind of cynical Life During COVID documentation violates a current cultural desire for Movie Magic escapism, it will only become more valuable the further we get away from this moment.

In fact, Locked Down is already a document of a bygone era. Its version of Life During COVID is more specific to the earliest lockdown orders of last March when the world at large finally started taking the virus seriously (i.e. when it nearly assassinated Tom Hanks). Anne Hathaway & Chiwetel Ejiofor star as a bitter Londoner couple who foolishly break up just when the stay-at-home orders hit the city, confining their romantic meltdown to a single (fabulously stylish) house they’re pressured not to leave. Their isolation from the outside world and increased “alone” time triggers an avalanche of neurotic second-guessings of their life philosophies & self-mythologies. They not only reassess their relationship, but also the overall trajectory of their life together, their individual professional careers, and the world at large. Meanwhile, early-pandemic observations about empty city streets, supermarket mask etiquette, at-home breadmaking, laggy Zoom calls (a convenient excuse for Celebrity Cameos), and the introduction of pajama bottoms to “office” wear anchor those alone-time reassessments to a very specific, instantly recognizable moment in recent history. All of this anti-romantic back & forth unfolds like a lightly bitter stage play (thanks mostly to the limited setting and the screenwriting contribution from Locke-director Steven Knight) until seemingly insignificant details accumulate to present an absurd opportunity to the struggling couple: they could easily pull off a minimal-effort diamond heist. Even just the suggestion of that risky transgression is enough to reignite their lost excitement for life & each other. The major conflict of the heist is not in its planning but in the decision of whether or not to go through with it at all.

In a word, Locked Down is cute. Like with the last time Anne Hathaway starred in a frothy heist comedy (Ocean’s 8), its only major sin is that it’s decent enough but Soderbergh could’ve done something phenomenal with the same cast & resources. Its major selling point—whether or not anyone knows it yet—is that it’ll be a great fluffy time capsule for people who were too snooty or squeamish to watch last year’s Host. The promotional materials for Locked Down have claimed that it’s “one of the first and most ambitious films to be conceived and shot during the pandemic”. I know that’s bullshit for two glaring reasons: 1. Critics who are professionally assigned to watch & review pop media are apparently already sick of grappling with COVID-era cinema, indicating that it’s far from a novelty at this point. 2. The found-footage Zoom meeting horror flick Host was conceived, shot, and released last summer, when many of Locked Down‘s more zeitgiesty observations would’ve still felt fresh. Host was also way more ambitious in its genre payoffs & budget-defying stunts, whereas Locked Down is mostly just handsome celebrities exchanging cutesy monologues in a few limited locales. Even its central diamond “heist” is mostly a series of conversations. The only difference is that Host (despite being the far superior work) happens to belong to a genre that most audiences don’t take seriously as Art, whereas Locked Down echoes more widely familiar moods & rhythms of Mainstream Filmmaking, which has largely been halted for the past 10 months. Despite the cries of its COVID-era commentary being Too Soon, Too Crass, or Too Much, I think there’s immense cultural value to pop media like this directly grappling with the real-world circumstances that are limiting its scope by effectively documenting them for cultural posterity. It’s time-capsule exploitation filmmaking at its sweetest & most harmless, so I’m a little baffled as to why it’s become such a critical scapegoat.

-Brandon Ledet

Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet