Tribeca 2021: The COVID Fest

There was no way we were getting out of Tribeca 2021 without COVID movies. No possibility. Tribeca tends to skew more indie and experimental than a lot of major fests—it’s not unusual for a majority of the narrative films I watch at Tribeca to clock in under 100 minutes, as was the case for Tribeca 2021, with plenty of titles well under 90—and this year they’re the first big U.S. festival back post-pandemic, at a time when filmmakers have had 15 months to cook up some potentially ill-advised COVID projects. Though it doesn’t advertise itself as such, the festival’s midpoint-but-actually-penultimate-night “centerpiece” selection, Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move, was one such pandemic project, shot in a “bubble” last fall. (HBO Max apparently loves an auteur in the bubble; they premiered Doug Liman’s Soderberghian Locked Down in January.) Soderbergh’s movie isn’t ill-advised at all, at least in terms of how it turned out; mostly, it’s a blast. But there are COVID-heavier projects on the Tribeca bill, too, that take up an assignment seemingly no audience members have given out: How do we make a movie within and about the global pandemic we’ve all been experiencing in some form or another for over a year?

7 Days (Grade: B) dives right into what could be high-concept hell: It’s a COVID meet-cute! In other words, it could be hell: Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Ravi (Karan Soni, who also co-wrote) go on a distanced, outdoor date in the very early days of the pandemic, arranged by their more traditional Indian parents. Then a lockdown order (somewhat improbably) strands Ravi at Rita’s apartment—long enough, in fact, for him to realize that Rita is far less conservative and marriage-minded than she presented herself. Their obvious incompatibilities on the table, Rita and Ravi are stuck together for at least a few days. Will circumstances actually connect their truer selves after all?

Even ignoring the effortful shoehorning of asks and some symptom paranoia, this movie’s approach is unpromising; so few contemporary romantic comedies are written with enough skill to pull off the two leads disliking each other without sounding sour, unpleasant, or genuinely incompatible. Early on, Soni (a frequent comedy player who may be best known as the cabbie in the Deadpool movies) seems like he’ll be the one to overdo it with Ravi’s eager-to-please, quick-to-judge passivity. But miraculously, 7 Days seems to understand that rom-coms are more fun to watch if the participants seem to actually like each other, even if they disguise it by trading barbs. The movie is helped immeasurably by Viswanathan (Blockers), who never overplays Rita’s give-no-fucks qualities. In moment after moment, she finds laughs, charm, or truth in a line or a moment that could have easily gone too broad in other hands. After the initial establishment of awkwardness, Soni settles down and matches her level. The characters and their maybe-romance have room to breathe, and the movie is careful not to turn COVID-19 into a dreamy wish-fulfillment scenario about getting confined to a small (and gratifyingly messy) apartment with your crush. There’s desperation in the air, too, which somehow makes the whole thing more than a little touching.

7 Days eventually takes a more serious turn, and I’m not sure it pulls all of that off, at least not to the extent that it receives screentime. But this material is far more credible than most rom-coms’ third-act abandonment of laughs, and ends on a sweetly understated note. Director Roshan Sethi isn’t doing anything especially showy with the rom-com genre, but his steady hand is much appreciated following the sweaty anti-craftsmanship of Dating and New York. Also: Viswanathan is a star.

Another COVID-centric film, as of yet (Grade: C) has more success capturing the particulars of the pandemic, rooted to an actual time and place. Specifically, it’s set 84 days into New York City quarantine—around the time, early last June, when the numbers started to improve and the horrors of the spring started to temporarily subside, just in time for the horrors of racial injustice to reach an overdue boiling point. Writer and co-director Taylor Garron plays Naomi, who has been isolated in her Bed-Stuy apartment, talking to friends via Facetime and Zoom and herself via some video diaries. Over the course of a few days, Naomi navigates two central interpersonal dilemmas: How to transition a promising, longer-term-than-usual dating-app flirtation into a cautious version of real life; and—tellingly more fraught—how to deal with an initially absent roommate who’s both insensitive about racial issues and judgmental about Naomi’s in-person date.

There are some neat COVID-era touches here, like Naomi chatting out her window, at a distance, with one of her neighbors about her roommate/maybe-date dilemma; every conversation (except those with her awful roommate) feels like some kind of a lifeline. Garron certainly has enough presence, charm, and timing for me to wonder why she and her co-director Chanel James didn’t make a movie, rather than a series of realistically rambling chats. as of yet has an intentionally rough-hewn DIY quality that grows trying, even at 80 minutes. It’s naturalistic to experience people wandering through Facetime conversations through their laptop cameras, but sitting through actual glitches and out-of-sync dialogue eventually starts to feel like the 2021 equivalent of watching a dubbed VHS tape projected onto a giant screen: Is there any additional meaning here beyond “this is how things look sometimes”? Aesthetics aside, Naomi’s conversations with friends, family, and herself grow repetitive; we get to know her like a new friend, and maybe the movie could’ve used some distance. Technically, there’s probably more genuine wit here than in 7 Days, as Garron and her co-stars are adept at either improvised riffs, or improvised-sounding riffs (“I can’t tell how much of that is you speaking confidently with a British accent”). There’s a funny bit about whether Pete Wentz being mixed-raced qualifies as news or not, and it’s neither especially connected to anything bigger the movie has on its mind nor raucously funny enough to become its own

Early on, Naomi, with disaffected millennial-zoomer-line confidence, talks about how the “only” movie she has seen is the ’90s kid comedy Heavyweights, but she’ll binge watch the hell out of countless TV shows. I know the movie is fiction, but I believe her. I’m only puzzled about why she didn’t follow through: In form and rhythm, as of yet would make way more sense as a TV episode. Sometimes confinement is telling you something.