Life is full of surprises. Just last March — to pick one random example that you might remember — the entire world shut down because a coronavirus decided that it didn’t want to live inside a bat anymore. What a twist! Aside from the many scientists who saw it coming and repeatedly tried to sound the alarm, literally no one saw it coming. And now, just a year after the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the planet to a standstill, we’re in for another system shock that might be even harder to swallow: Someone has managed to make a funny movie about it. Like, actually funny, and not just “I understand that reference about decontaminating groceries” funny or “I haven’t had human contact with anyone outside my home in over 12 months” funny or “I’m only laughing so that my brain is tricked into releasing the last drops of serotonin that are clinging to its lobes like the peanut butter at the bottom of an empty jar” funny.
But the fact that it exists in the first place is far from the only surprising thing about Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek’s “Recovery,” a breathless road trip comedy that’s silly in the face of death and upends expectations at such a fast and furious rate that you eventually learn to stop having any. Co-written by Everton and her longtime best friend Whitney Call (two BYU grads who honed their craft on the Mormon college’s sketch comedy show, “Studio C”), “Recovery” doesn’t start on an especially promising note, as its blitz of an opening scene — set at a crowded pre-COVID party where people are talking in each other’s faces and sticking their grubby hands into shared bowls of popcorn — suggests that we’re in for an unusually manic riff on the kind of “take it or leave it” indie fare that’s come out of the pandemic so far.
Pink-haired elementary school teacher Jamie Jerikovic (Call) sits across from her blonde sister Blake (Everton) as they rattle off their high-flying plans for the next year, the dialogue ping-ponging between the two girls like they just snorted Preston Sturges’ ashes, if nothing else. We’re going to Rome. And Coachella. And Disneyland with Nana.” Life is great. The world is their oyster. “Tom Hanks is happy.” Freeze-frame. Record scratch. Cut to: March 30, when 50,000 cases have already been diagnosed in America and the country’s biggest TV star is a 79-year-old doctor from Brooklyn.
“Recovery” blazes through the usual COVID signifiers with the foresight of a movie that knows this stuff is going to be crushingly familiar until the day we all forgot about it, but some kind of singular kookiness survives the Edgar Wright-esque speed at which it moves through the girls scrubbing their arms and sterilizing their packages. In stark contrast to the lo-fi realism that has defined so much of early COVID cinema (see: Pacho Velez’s documentary “Searchers,” or the even more recent SXSW premiere “The End of Us”), Everton and Meek’s debut is as heightened as the strange days in which it’s set; this is the world as we know it, everything is just tinged with a slightly demented energy and pitched our way at such a breathless rate that it feels as if the film itself is afraid of what’s in the air.
By the time Blake and Jamie embark on an emergency cross-country road trip to save their grandma from her thunderdome of a nursing home, it’s clear that “Recovery” isn’t taking the most obvious route. “Who’s in charge?” one of the sisters asks the concierge on the other end of the phone. “COVID-19 is in charge now,” comes the petrified reply. But even such a morbid joke — which might sound glib on paper — is anchored in real stakes that prevent it from seeming flippant. An extra urgency is added to the Jerikovics’ mission since they’re also trying to reach grandma before their other, wildly irresponsible older sister gets there first (she’s naturally on a cruise ship when the movie starts).
And so we’re off to the races, as “Recovery” hits the great American highways and veers into something that resembles a mile-a-minute cross between “Booksmart” and “Locke” (you read that right). The unforced bond between these characters keeps things so lively and off-kilter that you hardly notice that half the film takes place in the front seat of their car. Blake — who Everton plays with a sing-songy husk that lets her go from zero-to-punchline at the drop of a hat — is struggling to keep the flame alive with the incredible Tinder date she had just before lockdown began. What starts as a benign subplot quickly zags in at least three different horrifyingly funny directions, each of which allow the seriousness of the pandemic to seep in while still preserving necessary pockets of deranged levity.
Meanwhile, Jamie is constantly on the phone with the nine-year-old student who’s pet-sitting the class mice, and that shit gets dark in a real hurry (“have you ever smelled mouse afterbirth?” is a line that’s hard to shake). These characters would probably be insufferable in real life, but Call keeps things natural even when scenes reveal their underlying sketchiness, and it’s a blast to watch Jamie try to keep her head up even when the world is a horrorshow around her. The ridiculousness of what we see contrasts with the violence we only hear about to create a snow-globe effect that bubbles the sisters off from the pervasive sense of death that surrounds them, and “Recovery” is able to remain a total pick-me-up even as its barren landscapes and lack of traffic allow it to flirt with a post-apocalyptic vibe.
The movie picks up enough momentum on the way east that it’s easy to overlook the low-key smartness of Everton and Meek’s invisible direction, which trusts the jokes enough to get out of their way. The lack of visual humor is felt as “Recovery” slows towards its grand finale, but the flagging energy is owed more towards an almost complete absence of character growth (neither felt nor missed until the movie shifts into neutral and starts repeating gags, as the leads spark so much fun together). But this opportunistic and ultra-promising debut feature doesn’t have much of an agenda beyond finding a bit of light in the darkness, even if you have to drive halfway across the country for it. “Recovery” is hardly a cure for COVID or any of the damage it’s done, but if laughter is the best medicine, this might just be enough to hold you over until the vaccine.
“Recovery” premiered at SXSW 2021. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.