Peter Hedges brings his typical schtick to The Same Storm, getting off to a rocky start but ultimately getting somewhere heartwarming enough.
Is there any filmmaker working today as uncool as Peter Hedges? The writer-director has made a career out of crafting tales of familial strife so earnest in their sincerity that, to the jaded viewer, they come across as borderline disingenuous, the work of an artist seemingly born without a single mean bone in his body. It would be easy to write off films like Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life as glorified sitcoms if they hadn’t attracted casts so talented that they elevated the material into something akin to emotional honesty, even as the broad strokes painted a far different picture. This was most evident with 2018’s Ben Is Back, a drug addiction drama that had the misfortune of opening one month after Felix van Groeningen’s thematically similar Beautiful Boy but trafficked in the soap opera theatrics its competition steadfastly avoided. Who needs authenticity when you have Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges swinging for the Oscar fences? Yet here’s the thing: Ben Is Back was the far better film, taking a familiar redemption arc and infusing it with a humanity Beautiful Boy fatally lacked.
Hedges is nothing if not a born storyteller, knowing exactly how to manipulate viewers even as the strings can be seen from a mile away. Perhaps that is why critics, especially, always have their guards up when encountering a new Hedges project, and that goes double for his latest, The Same Storm, which has the dubious distinction of being yet another feature in the ever-growing subgenre of Pandemic Cinema. Shot during the height of Covid, The Same Storm was filmed entirely through Zoom, with the ridiculously overqualified cast providing their own homes as shooting locations. There is nothing new to be said regarding this particular strain of film, as this critic has written over a dozen reviews of movies that have tackled the pandemic through such varied genre lenses as horror, romance, and domestic drama. The Same Storm takes an admittedly more novel approach, dividing the movie into a series of over two dozen video calls in which a character from a previous chat interacts with a new participant, who then proceeds to become the focal point of the next story, and so on and so on. With each glorified short basically lasting less than five minutes, brevity is the name of the game, which means if one particular story is a total dud, it isn’t long before a new one arrives to reset the proceedings — and let it be said that there are more than a few bad apples.
Things certainly get off to a rocky start, as Hedges seems to be checking off a carefully cultivated list of pandemic-related buzzwords and topics, with both “Covid toes” and “BLM” popping up mere moments after the opening credits. Hell, the first story concerns a woman unable to talk to her husband as he lies dying in a hospital bed from Covid-related complications, with his nurse asking if she would like to relay any last words. We then immediately cut to Mary-Louise Parker as an online sex worker who tells the aforementioned nurse that he is indeed a hero, and that she will bang a pan in his honor at 7:00pm, and holy shit, could this truly just be that Gal Gadot/”Imagine” celebrity sing-along stretched to feature length?
Yet The Same Storm, rather miraculously, gets better as it goes along, with Hedges once more opting for network television-level drama but scoring a cast that is able to find shadings where none exist on the page. This is no more evident than in two particular storylines involving actress Alison Pill, the MVP of this particular group, which is quite an accomplishment considering that Hedges somehow convinced Elaine May to appear in this project. In the first, Pill plays an elementary school teacher struggling to adapt to the online protocols of education, getting a solid assist from Rosemarie DeWitt and Ron Livingston as two overstressed parents unequipped to handle the pressures of forced-together time. In the second, we watch as her character hosts an online birthday party for her cancer-stricken mother (Judith Light), accompanied by mismatched brothers John Gallagher Jr., Joshua Leonard, and Cory Michael Smith. This is by far the longest segment of the film and also its strongest, as Hedges is able to weave together long-simmering family resentments involving everything from politics to sexual orientation and turn them into the type of emotionally broad yet bracing theatrics that are a staple of the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Indeed, The Same Storm starts on a note of emotional hysteria and never lets up, but it feels more earned the longer it goes on, which could be either a matter of viewer acclimation or simply Hedges being wise enough to save his best material for last. The end note is especially moving, as Hedges quite literally breaks through the imaginary walls of Zoom to offer a moment of hope that is as freeing as it is clichéd. And that is Hedges — and ultimately The Same Storm — in a nutshell, a place where novelty goes to die, but there is no denying the beating heart that exists within. Resistance is futile.