A little over a year ago, mentioning the term “COVID comedy” as a film genre would have probably brought looks of confusion. Of course, events within the last 12 months or so have changed the entire motion of the world at every level of our lives. The landscapes of film, art, and entertainment have adapted to this sharp shift in direction in their own unique fashion. From co-directors Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek, the SXSW selection Recovery is a prime example of just how quickly and vastly our culture has evolved in the midst of a global pandemic.
Set in March 2020 at the onset of COVID-19’s direct impact on everyday life in the United States, Recovery follows sisters Jamie (Whitney Call) and Blake (Mallory Everton) setting out on a road-trip from New Mexico to Washington state to save their grandmother from her nursing home, which is experiencing a concentrated outbreak of the virus. Jamie and Blake are both at that period in their lives where they are seeking purpose, passion, and adventure — aspirations that have been momentarily put on hold as a result of the pandemic. Interestingly enough, this venture gives them an opportunity to carry out something meaningful and even heroic. The context of the matter is extremely unfortunate, but the sisters are both set on making the most of the ordeal.
If there is a single thing in Recovery that works above all else, it is the effortless chemistry between Call and Everton in the lead roles, delivering on the screenplay they wrote together. Their body language, facial expressions, physical comedy, and dialogue are all in perfect rhythm with each other. Their collaborative efforts behind-the-scenes and on-screen feel totally organic. Generally, I got the vibe that Call and Everton are two real-life friends who had the epiphany to get together and make something fun, creative, and true to their personalities. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for the conversations in the writing room with the duo as they developed the script. The bizarre escapades of the characters of Jamie and Blake become progressively more absurd as the film runs. Still, there is also a good deal of heartfelt emotion amongst the silliness, whimsy, and raunchy humor. This is ultimately a movie about sisterhood, friendship, and the messy, beautiful bonds of family. Recovery hits the mark when it focuses on these themes and the associated relationships.
Unfortunately, this film has a habit of straying from the winning formula of a road-trip comedy and family drama hybrid into the much less effective territory of a COVID comedy. The pandemic aspect of the narrative comes across as more of a gimmick than an actual substantial asset to the story. There were plenty of other avenues and options to be used for the inciting incident in the script, that all could have been totally removed from COVID. Granted, some of the situational humor of the road-trip is specific to the circumstances provided by the conditions of the pandemic, but the jokes have a less than stellar batting average. Furthermore, it does not help that these gags have been played out so many times over the past year in real life, and we as a population (and an audience) are collectively burned out.
There is also the element of sensitivity to consider. As it stands currently, more than 500,000 Americans have died from COVID. Thus, making light of anything regarding the pandemic might be in poor taste for some people. This is not necessarily my personal opinion; with satire and parody, I believe that there are paths of reconciliation and peace to be found in the midst of the pain. But, there is no one-size-fits-all method of processing grief, especially as we are not out of the woods yet with COVID at the point of this film’s release. If this movie was made 10 years down the road, the conversation may be entirely different. However, Recovery was made today, and that is the lens through which we are examining it.
Comprehensively, watching this film was a frustrating experience. For a low-budget indie feature that was developed, produced, and distributed in the thick of a turbulent year, the technical filmmaking is more than adequate. The scenic routes along the road from New Mexico to Washington are gorgeously photographed by Director of Photography Brenna Empey, and there is a vivid color palette and lighting aesthetic that align with the quirky tone and cheesy charm of the characters. The flashes of brilliance in Recovery are surely present, but their lack of consistency is a problem. If only the COVID factor was excised from the world of the film in favor of a heavier fixation on the road-trip antics and touching family chronicle.
Still, testing the waters of a new genre is no small feat, and I admire the crew behind this film for being bold enough to give it a shot. We are bound to see a massive influx of COVID comedies in the coming years, so it will be fascinating to see how many find a way to stay afloat. Hopefully we get a handful that manage to strike that balance missing from Recovery.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 17th, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.