SXSW 2021 review: ‘Recovery’ looks for humor in lockdown

Enjoyment of Recovery, directed by Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek, is going to hinge on two major factors. The first is the ability to stomach a comedy that mines laughs from the pandemic; with this being the bigger hurdle to overcome because, while the film seemingly has good intentions, we’re hardly removed from the communal trauma that COVID-19 wreaked on us, and while maybe we can look back one day and laugh at how institutions such as nursing homes didn’t have enough support to keep the elderly safe—that certainly isn’t the case now. The second factor is how charming you find the leads, Everton and Whitney Call. This is easier as both, Everton in particular, manage to bring levity and frazzled energy to even the most stagnant dialogue. It’s an exercise in just how far a film can be carried by the combined charisma of its stars, with both Everton and Call believable as sisters and committed to delivering on the laughs with gross out humor and physical comedy. More than anything though, it asks viewers to deliberate with ourselves on not just whether we should laugh at something so hideously close to us, but whether or not we even have the bandwidth to do so. Recovery isn’t without it’s highlights, but for a film that engages so strongly with COVID related jokes, it needed to surpass its best moments in order to be more than a gag to a really bad year. 

Call and Everton play Jamie and Blake, two sisters who, like many of us, were looking ahead at 2020 with hope, ambition and a lot of plans. During Jamie’s 30th birthday celebration, the two list all of the upcoming plans from travel, Coachella and prime gym memberships. During this we watch as friends share in snack bowls and party members give their well wishes with faces impossibly close. The joke is evident before the punchline lands—these plans aren’t going to happen and, instead, as the news reels play and the sisters are forced into lockdown, they’re faced with the mundanity and anxiety the new reality of staying home and staying safe entails. This includes enormous amounts of disinfectant, medical gloves, and a laundry basket for clothes to be sanitized after being worn out into the world. When news hits that their grandma’s nursing home has had a COVID outbreak, the two set off to go and bring her home. 

This is when the bulk of the story sets in, as the two spend much of the runtime in the car driving from New Mexico to Washington to retrieve her along with a few stops along the way. Set in the early days of the pandemic right after we were sent home and the new “normal” was sinking in, there’s a level of observational humor that is at times scathing in its approach. The inherent darkness of the comedy is inescapable as the script zeroes in on how, beyond the loss and the pain that the pandemic wrought, we also all collectively tried, failed, and then tried again to learn how to cope in unforgiving circumstances. Teachers being sent home and parents having to juggle watching their kids while trying to maintain their jobs isn’t funny. Jamie, a fourth grade teacher, having to bring home the mice she’d used to win her students favor on the other hand is. It’s finding and balancing between the two truths is where Recovery often loses its footing. 

While other SXSW entries this year have dealt with pandemic related threads, it differs here due to how many jokes are made without seemingly considering the real tragedy behind it. Even call out jokes about their other sister who is anti-mask don’t land with as much heat as they should and, for such a lean script, still manages to overstay with a too long detour for the grandma’s dog and an ill-planned dream sequence. Penned by Call and Everton, the two are clever with a good ear for seamless back and forth dialogue as the two plan on one another, but they lose focus in the overall story, too centered on the individual scene rather than the whole picture. 

A shame, since the two share tremendous chemistry. There’s a magnetism to Everton in particular which makes her particularly watchable as the messy yet comfortable in her skin Blake. She particularly shines in physical comedy and if the entire film had been as strong as one where Blake must navigate pumping gas with a shortage of medical gloves and the fear of contact with anyone surrounding her, then the film might’ve been greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, it amounts to an at times funny take on a not so funny situation, that is less a means of escape than a question of how soon is too soon. Everton and Call make for a dynamic duo but would’ve been better served with a different take on their script. 

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