How many films have been made in which the director never met the majority of the actors? How often have performers had to operate the camera themselves rather than the cinematographer or operator or director? Any number of films have been made under great duress, but The Same Storm is a rare bird, a scripted feature made last July under Covid conditions in New York City on which the actors performed while isolated from anyone other than their fellow castmates. It even features a number of name actors, beginning with Elaine May, appearing in her first big-screen film since Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks 21 years ago. And she’s terrific in it.
That alone would justify checking out this modest but adventurous film, which assumes a La Ronde-like structural approach by skipping from one very short story to another on the way to creating a panoramic, if still limited, picture of life under the pandemic in the nation’s biggest city. The result is technically and visually crude, but despite the episodes’ dramatically uneven quality, writer-director Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy, Ben Is Back) has put together a grab bag that mostly engages your attention and sticks in the mind as a vivid slap-dash portrait of a city and, by extension, a world under siege.
Much of The Same Storm consists of the actors looking directly at a screen, just as countless millions of people do every day to communicate with friends, family and fellow workers. For this reason, the prospects of watching a movie in which the actors are doing the very same thing you’re doing may not be all that enticing, and it admittedly does get tiresome at times. Still, Hedges prevails more often than not in concocting lively exchanges and scenes that express aspects of our universal quasi-incarceration in ways that both illuminate and amuse.
In essence, this is a mosaic of Covid realities expressed via 24 video sessions. The first episode cuts to the quick, with a middle-aged woman (Noma Dumezweni) getting some very bad news over the phone about her husband from a male nurse (Raul Castillo) at a hospital. This is bracing and brutal and makes you wonder if the subsequent 90 minutes are going to be drenched in sorrow and tragedy.
Such concerns are chucked out the window with the pairing of May (who is now 89) and Mary-Louise Parker, which unsurprisingly takes the form of a contest of ever-mounting neuroses. It would be easy to believe that May agreed to be in the film because she would not be required to leave her apartment, but in any event, it’s a stellar segment that features two ace performers whose game has in no way been diminished by adverse circumstances.
There’s a gathering of a large Jewish family, a battle between a mother (Sandra Oh) and her hyper-verbal son (Jin Ha) whose refusal to take his meds drives her to drink for the first time in decades. Rather less felicitous is a conflict between a Black cop (Todd Freeman) and his daughter (Moses Ingram). Perhaps the most highly charged vignette, which also feels like the most concocted, features a teacher (Alison Pill) whose birthday party for her ailing mother descends into horrendous bickering involving her three brothers — a gay man and two vociferous redneck Trump supporters.
Ultimately, it all comes full circle, and despite the highs and lows and the didactic, awkward nature of some of it, you come to value the lives of all the troubled, messed up and sometimes misguided people here, along with those who are trying to do the right thing as best they can.
It is sometimes messy, awkward and overstated, but that would seem to come with the territory and the slap-dash way this enterprising production was put together.
The Same Storm world premiered over the weekend at the Telluride Film Festival.