Credit: Artemis Shaw/Arashanth Kamalakanthan/Los Angeles Festival of Movies
Before We Vanish by Ryan Coleman Featured Film

New Strains — Artemis Shaw & Prashanth Kamalakanthan

June 11, 2024

We’re in an odd place when it comes to “Covid cinema.” The time between the World Health Organization first declaring Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020 and film industries around the world lifting production restrictions is already being regarded in hindsight as a discrete chapter in the history of the medium, with its own requisite profile of narrative and aesthetic quirks. Hollywood only began to release productions from the testing, social distancing, and downscale requirements in the spring of 2023, so for American cinema, this period entered the sphere of contemplation only very recently. We will likely see filmmakers grappling with the pandemic’s effects — mortal, spiritual, political, economic — for a long time. But the stream of films made about the pandemic during the pandemic is already beginning to slow to a trickle. 

In much the same way that smartphone cinema post-Tangerine has mainly concerned itself with proving that you can make iPhone footage not look like iPhone footage, most Covid-era films worked to transcend their limitations. Films like Kimi, Malcolm and Marie, and In The Earth, which crane backward after each step to erase their labored footprints, refuse the pandemic as a subject. Only a few, like Host, The Tsugua Diaries, and Antoine D’Agata’s The Bare Life have confronted the pandemic on both formal and thematic fronts, experimenting with rather than struggling to overcome the complications a respiratory virus imposes on an artform as fundamentally social as filmmaking, and diving into the wreck it made of all our lives in the story.

New Strains, the first feature film directorial collaboration of husband-wife duo Prashanth Kamalakanthan and Artemis Shaw, earns its place among the very best films made during and about the pandemic mere minutes into its runtime. And then it blows past them, ceaselessly uncovering new setups, new frames, and new punchlines for our new reality. Premiering in L.A. this weekend at the first edition of the Los Angeles Festival of Movies after an award-winning debut at Rotterdam, New Strains is one of the most formally ingenious films of the Covid era. It’s the rare example that would actually freight the film school platitude to “just pick up your camera and shoot” — budget, cast, and connections be damned — with real meaning. And it’s certainly the funniest film this writer has seen to take the pandemic on as its subject. 

Shaw and Kamalakanthan wrote, directed, and star in New Strains, it was co-produced by Shaw, and it was shot and edited by Kamalakanthan. The couple play a couple named Kallia and Ram, who’ve come to stay at the swanky Manhattan loft of a relative of Kallia’s. The pandemic we all know gives way to a new strain that’s whipping up paranoia. A newscaster recites the frightening symptoms (“cognitive decline, reduced planning faculties, and even memory loss”) over absurd footage of an adult man (played by Kamalakanthan’s father) rolling around like a child and doodling on his own face. Kallia can’t stop walking around the half-deserted, newly masked-up city, running into an old flame in the park and peeking around an exhibition (“What kind of idiot museum is still open!” Ram rages at home). Inevitably, she tracks home the new strain, and the couple devolve into the incoherent babbling of babies, possibly just in time to save their relationship from the new strains caused by this new strain.

Shaw and Kamalakanthan both teach cinema at Virginia Commonwealth University. They met at NYU as grad students, and have occasionally overlapped in their creative pursuits. Kamalakanthan edited Shaw’s hybrid doc short Safari Video, Shaw produced Kamalakanthan’s short A Hand and feature Have a Nice Life, and they worked together on a film by the Norwegian director Anja Høvik Strømsted. Heading into lockdown in the apartment seen in the film, Shaw came across the camera of her childhood, a Sony miniDV Handycam. When the couple discovered the miniDV has a 240x digital zoom, “Apartment TV” was born — days spent zooming into the unsettling nautical paintings seen in the film, into neighboring apartments, into each other’s personal space. Apartment TV begat an idea for a feature, and the bottomless safety and trust engendered by the fact of being a married crew and cast of two opened up space for daring experiments.

Kamalakanthan’s camera functions like the film’s third character, alternating between fixed shots capturing the couple at an oblique distance and intimate handheld closeups, themselves alternating between tender and terroristic. One scene opens with Ram’s head buried between Kallia’s thighs, heat fogging the corners of the lens. She excuses herself after a few unstimulating seconds to sit on the toilet and scroll through the feed of a Twitter-famous doctor fear-mongering about the virus. The normal ebbs and flows of connubial domesticity are crushed into wild oscillations by the enforced proximity of the lockdown and the delirious effects of the new strain. A hilarious sequence toward the end captures Kallia following exercise instructions from a YouTube video croaking out from her laptop, fixed on a chair on the balcony, her phone propped against her laptop with a close friend mirroring the exercise on FaceTime. The camera gyrates in the opposite direction of Shaw’s body, frenetically cranking left and right, zooming in and out on her winded face as she begins spouting nonsense like “how does the remote work?” in response to her friend’s “How are you?”

Elsewhere, the candid sex and nudity in New Strains recalls the freedom of Girls when Lena Dunham was at her very best. Will Epstein’s tinkling, effervescent score hoists the film aloft, ferrying it between slapstick pratfalls and moments of genuine heartache. It ultimately becomes a tribute to Kamalakanthan and Shaw’s love, and treatise on the elastic limits of cinema. These two quite literally had a camcorder and a dream. Now they’re proud parents of one of the best films of the Covid era.

DIRECTOR: Artemis Shaw & Arashanth Kamalakanthan;  CAST: Artemis Shaw, Arashanth Kamalakanthan, Cynthia Talmadge;  DISTRIBUTOR: Memory;  IN THEATERS: June 13;  STREAMING: June 19;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 18 min.