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4 new movies that explore — or predict — a year dominated by a pandemic

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and many of its films, reflect life in a time of plague.

A man stands in front of a window, looking at a hazy pink cloud outside.
Eduardo Mendonça in The Pink Cloud by Iuli Gerbase.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Early in 2020, when we still had hope that the spread of Covid-19 would be suppressed in a few weeks or months and we’d be back to our lives in short order, film critics joked about what the 2021 Sundance Film Festival selection would be like. Dramas about parents trapped at home with their kids for a few weeks and having a personal revelation. Quirky romances between quarantined roommates. Zoom-mediated comedies. That sort of thing.

Back then, nobody dared think the festival itself would be held online — it was too hard to imagine. But by fall the (wise) decision was made to make most of Sundance 2021 a virtual affair, with a little bit of satellite programming at small theaters and drive-ins around the country. I wondered, when I heard that announcement, how much “quarancinema” could really make its way into the lineup or address the situation, given the length of time it takes to write, shoot, and create a film.

The answer surprised me: The festival was full of resonant works, whether made intentionally about life during this pandemic or accidentally apropos. Maybe I should have expected as much; a couple of TV shows as well as films that were shot in the middle of the pandemic (like the maudlin Malcolm & Marie) and even set during it (like the weirdly boring Locked In), have already been released on major streaming services. Doubtless many more are en route.

But it was impossible, as I sat on my couch watching this year’s festival films, to not be struck by how fundamentally accurate so many of them felt about life, both over the past year and right now. And more shocking was how dead-on they seemed to depict our reality, even though several were written and shot long before “social distancing” entered our vocabulary irrevocably.

As I wrote last year, the feeling that so many of the movies that came out in 2020 were somehow “relevant” to life in quarantine — even though it was impossible for filmmakers to have known what was coming — pointed to the wider trends of isolation and inequality the pandemic simply unearthed. But most of those films felt like allegories; at Sundance, the resemblance was much more literal, and some of them were eerily prescient.

In particular, the four films below will undoubtedly resonate as they make their way to theaters and streaming services in the coming months — and not one of them is a quirky Zoom comedy. Some were shot during 2020; others had wrapped long before the fateful year began. But each addresses something specific about the lives we’re living right now, though hopefully not forever.

In the Earth

A man silhouetted against a bright, foggy light, holding an axe.
Reece Shearsmith in In the Earth by Ben Wheatley.
Neon/Sundance Institute

Director Ben Wheatley (Free Fire, High-Rise) shot In the Earth shortly after lockdown lifted in the UK last spring. Taking cues from folk horror, it’s the story of a scientist (Joel Fry) who embarks on a mission to find a colleague gone missing. Accompanied by a forest ranger (Ellora Torchia), he heads into the woods. When they encounter a strange man living alone there (Reece Shearsmith), things start to go very badly.

In the Earth acknowledges a world where some kind of deadly virus exists and checkpoints have been set up to rapid-test people as they move around the country. And although the movie isn’t my cup of tea — it’s violent, a tad incoherent, and not very fun to watch — it’s interesting to see the creative ways the production gets around Covid-19 safety regulations. Some characters are masked; some shots are visibly set up to accommodate social distancing; almost the entire movie is set outside. It’s more intriguing as an artifact of a time period than as a movie, but what a time.

How to watch it: Neon is set to distribute In the Earth in the US, but the film is awaiting a release date.

In the Same Breath

A crowd of Chinese people wearing masks and holding the Chinese flag.
An image from In the Same Breath by Nanfu Wang.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Pandemic documentaries started coming out this past fall and seem likely to continue for a while. But I have a hard time imagining a better one than In the Same Breath from director Nanfu Wang, who grew up in China but now lives and works in the US. Her previous film, One Child Nation, fearlessly exposed the wide-ranging repercussions of the Chinese government’s one-child policy (and won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2019). In the Same Breath takes a similarly fearless approach, this time to the often willful misinformation spread by multiple governments as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in early 2020.

Wang may be the single best guide through this experience, and not just because she’s fully immersed in both Chinese and American culture. In January 2020, when news of a strange new virus in China was just starting to surface in broader media, she was serving on a jury at Sundance while coordinating with her husband to retrieve their son from China, where he was visiting his grandparents. Simultaneously, she began contacting filmmakers on the ground in Wuhan who might be able to film what was going on.

She tells this story in In the Same Breath, which is a daring exploration of how the Chinese government repressed information about what was really happening. But it also exposes how other governments — most notably in the US — contributed to the ongoing misinformation crisis and made the entire situation much worse than it needed to be. It’s a chilling, truly absorbing film with big implications for the future.

How to watch it: In the Same Breath will premiere on HBO in spring 2021.

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet

A man with a plastic bubble around his head stands in a field.
Daniel Katz in The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet by Ana Katz.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

For most of its 73-minute runtime, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet feels like a subtly absurd comedy about life’s little, well, absurdities. We never hear the titular dog, who belongs to mild-mannered Seba (Daniel Katz), make a noise. Seba’s neighbors do, though, and they ask him to find a way to keep the dog from whining all day after he leaves for work.

This sets off a chain of events that seem loosely connected, or maybe not connected at all, and for an hour we’re just watching Seba live his life. Argentinian director Ana Katz (Daniel is her brother) is a gentle observer of the small moments where our lives can turn on a dime.

But then the big moment comes, so close to the end of the film that it’s surprising, and without revealing what happens, I’ll just say that it feels wildly familiar, that instant when everyone’s lives change. However, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet doesn’t stop with the moment of apocalypse; it imagines a life afterward, which is oddly heartening.

How to watch it: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet is awaiting US distribution.

The Pink Cloud

A woman stands at a window, looking at a pink cloud outside.
Renata de Lélis in The Pink Cloud by Iuli Gerbase.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Onscreen text at the beginning of The Pink Cloud tells us the film was written in 2017 and shot in 2019, which feels like an odd announcement to make to your audience. The reasons become almost immediately clear. In the story, a rosy pink cloud suddenly rolls across Earth, and if you breathe it in, you die. So everyone is instantly quarantined with whomever they happened to be with at the moment the cloud arrived. That means Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça), who met only the day before and spent the night together, are now stuck together indefinitely.

I do not fully know what Brazilian director Iuli Gerbase had in mind when she first wrote The Pink Cloud, but whatever the subtext was, in 2021 it’s just text. The pink cloud hovers over the world for years, and Giovana and Yago slowly experience the stages we’re familiar with now: certainty that it will be over soon, rage, exhaustion, fear, weariness. Birthdays happen over video chat. So do dental “visits.” Unable to leave home at all, people simply contract their universes to their houses and the people in them.

This likely sounds like a nightmare to watch if you’re more or less living it, but The Pink Cloud is haunting and riveting in the best way. It draws a stark contrast between people who decide to accept the circumstances and those who just keep chafing against them, without judging either group. It acutely diagnoses a mental state that will feel startlingly familiar. And in a strange way, it’s a little encouraging. We’re somehow not alone. And I think, in the decades to come, The Pink Cloud will keep feeling relevant — even when the cloud feels a little less literal.

How to watch it: The Pink Cloud is awaiting distribution.

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