When it comes to films set during the COVID-19 pandemic, the general consensus is that audiences aren’t too fond of the idea. “Quarantine” and “Social Distancing” are terms most people would rather have forgotten about a year from now, and the use of face masks puts an undeniable date on a film that will inevitably make it considerably less watchable when people no longer wear them in everyday life.
I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking), the feature directorial debut for both Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina, who also co-wrote the script and produced the film with Roma Kong, is set in the heart of this pandemic. By any definition, it is a pandemic film. In fact, the directors pooled together their stimulus checks to fund the ten-day shoot that resulted in the feature.
Kali plays Danny, who has been recently widowed and left homeless. So, she sets up a tent for herself and her young daughter, Wes (Wesley Moss), to whom she maintains that they are just camping and will return home soon. I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) looks at a frantic day in the life of Danny as she roller skates around in the sweltering heat of her California town and attempts to scramble the last $200 she needs to secure an apartment by the end of the day.
Of course, things don’t quite go as planned. The day ends up unraveling into a tragic comedy of errors, in which Danny is shorted by clients, gets too high to function, and even gets involved in a knife fight.
Besides the strangeness of seeing face masks and Lysol wipes on screen, one thing that is especially unsettling about the new phenomenon of COVID-era films is that they tend to feel the need to be uplifting. They tell their audience that this deafening pandemic was good for one thing: it brought people together. And, while this is true for many, the sentiment has the potential to feel cheap and leave a bad taste in one’s mouth due to the greater horrors of the fundamental mismanagement of the global crisis, as well as the unfathomable losses we have suffered.
What’s refreshing about I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) is that it’s a pandemic film that doesn’t pretend to sugarcoat the crisis or use it for an uplifting moral agenda. Sure, the film has a number of touching moments and an overall heartwarming message about a mother-daughter relationship that will undoubtedly have viewers feeling less inclined to take their own families for granted. But it also looks at the alarming ways that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected poor people.
Although I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) has moments rich with warmth and comedy, it ultimately does not glamorize Danny and Wes’ experience. This is the story of two people displaced during a time in which the vulnerable are only made more vulnerable. Indeed, the very mantra of this pandemic urges people to “stay home,” but what happens when you don’t have a home to go to? This predicament encapsulates Danny and Wes’ dire experience.
Not only is Danny without a home, but she has trouble finding one as she is too ashamed to admit she needs help. Kali and Molina do an excellent job of representing her as a humble and stoic character in order to note that the homeless stigma perseveres even during a global crisis. The very essence of camping, in fact, has an element of experiencing being in the wild and without a home, without actually having to experience homelessness.
In her vulnerable state, Danny is also preyed on by a wealthy man, hit on by another while she attempts to pawn a piece of jewelry, and is almost sexually assaulted by someone whom she thought was a close friend. The burden of a homeless woman knows no limits, and setting I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) during COVID-19 emphasizes this reality on multiple levels. Not only do issues of oppression prevail during times of crisis, but they thrive during it.
But an important political and moral commentary is only part of what makes I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) a good film. Kali and Molina are clearly familiar with the characters they are portraying. Danny is refreshingly imperfect; she makes mistakes along the way, such as getting high in the middle of a frantic and busy day. She also has very human, and yet sometimes impractical, reservations. Indeed, the film would have been twenty minutes long if Danny would just sell her wedding ring. But she has to carefully tread the balance between resourcefulness and sentimentality.
While I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) has something real and important to say about people who are struggling, it does not force itself in any direction. Things happen that don’t make sense. Things happen that frustrate us. And in our current, chaotic climate, that’s the only kind of film that feels real.