‘Never Better’: A coming-of-age tale that recalls those early days when the pandemic ruled our lives
OPINION: Rising star Sofia Bryant headlines the film about one woman's response to COVID that will have audiences laughing and crying as they recall the fear and anxiety we felt in those first days of quarantine.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
The national experience of COVID quarantine had such a massive impact on the American psyche that I’m sure we’ll be seeing art about it for years. Never Better is a new film that grapples with the fear and loneliness of the quarantine days through the eyes of Terese, a twentysomething with cystic fibrosis. She’s played by the young actress Sofia Bryant, who told me she leaned a lot on her own quarantine experience.
“I had to channel who I was during COVID,” she said. “I was literally at home, by myself, not seeing anybody and just being by myself with my inner thoughts so that’s really what it is. Just bringing myself to the character was the best thing” for the movie.
Terese is alone in her apartment for most of the story. She wants to break the rules a little—there’s a cute boy next door who looks COVID-safe—but cystic fibrosis means COVID could kill her, so it’s imperative that she be super-safe. She wipes down bottles, she never leaves home—you know the drill. But it’s not easy to get others to be as diligent as her.
Chaos arrives in the form of a roommate who behaves with the laxity that many of us brought to COVID—she eats out at restaurants and goes on Tinder dates. Terese and her roommate are the yin and yang of COVID responses, and they have to live together somehow even though one’s relaxed approach threatens the other’s life.
The film gives us moments of comedy and levity, then drama, then something frightening. There’s so many different moods I wasn’t quite sure how to categorize it. I asked Bryant, what is it? Comedy with drama? A build to something scary?
“She’s going through all of these horrible things, and she has to deal with it and she does that through comedy so it forces the film to be a little bit of everything,” Bryant said. “There are some cute romantic moments, and you have some comedy in there and it does get really dramatic and it does get really scary and serious. I don’t know how I’d define it.” She concluded it may ultimately be a coming-of-age movie where a young woman is forced by her circumstances to grow up and be an adult.
Terese’s mom is an ever-present voice on the phone, and while mom is loving and supportive, she’s also slightly smothering in a way that makes Terese want to not go back home. She has to learn to take care of herself, which means both doing the things she needs to do and speaking up for herself even when it’s hard. The story turns almost horror-like when she gets sick with a cough that won’t quit. Is it COVID? Is it? She freaks out and we do, too. COVID, at its height, was definitely like a movie monster in that we never really knew when it would attack or how bad it would be.
The story of COVID is both political and medical, but this movie stays strictly on the medical side. President 45 does not appear, and the government’s response is not criticized. It’s more of a story about one individual response to COVID that will make audiences laugh and cry and go back to the fear and anxiety we felt in those early days of quarantine.
There are very few characters in this story, leaving Bryant alone onscreen in most of the scenes, a huge challenge for any actor. This movie lives or dies based on how captivating she is as she moves through a gamut of emotions and how compelling she is as she journeys through the world that most of us experienced when we were stuck at home for an interminable amount of time.
One of the hard things about art that explores COVID is that most of us had the same exact experience. We stayed home, we got bored, we learned something esoteric, we felt lonely, we felt grateful for the first responders, we longed for connection with others as if we were thirsty and in the desert. Sure there were a few interesting stories—some couples reconnected or recommitted to each other—but for the most part, there’s a vast sameness to everyone’s quarantine experience that does not lend well to interesting art.
So much of art is about interactions and conflicts between people but this is more like a one-woman show in a world where the lengthy quarantine has meant that our ability to interact with each other has been compromised.
“Did this pandemic make my social battery run out in an hour and have to run home and see my cat? Yes! I’m still trying to figure out what this means for us,” Bryant said.
The most stark difference in quarantine experiences may lie between those who quarantined alone and got lonely and those who quarantined with others and got way too much time with people in a neverending sleepover. I quarantined with my wife and our two kids, and I remember it as if we were literally sitting on top of each other for 18 months. I remember touching base with a single woman I know who talked about how lonely she was. We envied each other. To her, family time sounded nice, and it was nice much of the time even though it could be suffocating. To me, being alone and having quiet sounded amazing, and she enjoyed that even though too much solitude can lead to intense loneliness.
Never Better took me back to those days when the pandemic ruled our lives, and it unleashed a talented young actress with range and charisma who could be a star for a long time.
Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.
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