Review: Songbird (2020)

Preamble

Since I was made aware of its existence, Songbird is a film I’ve been curious to see. Despite its subject matter, I think films like this are important for helping us deal with our stark times. And I was curious, if it had anything meaningful to say about our COVID-19 world. Does it speak to our times? Or use its premise as mere window dressing? Well, let’s put on our masks and find out.

However, before I get to my thoughts on the film, there’s something that needs to be acknowledged. Earlier this week, the UK reached 100,000 people who have died from Coronavirus. These are people who’s stories have been tragically cut short and never allowed to resume. For those of us who remain, it’s our duty to remember these people, whether it’s by reading about how much they meant to the people they left behind or being extra vigilant. Stay at home, wear a mask (outdoors), and cherish the fact that you’re still able to tell your story.

Review

Despite having a provocative premise, Songbird is the cinematic equivalent of chewing gum, enticing the viewer with a strong focus on its button pushing set up. However, it soon becomes so insipid that like a stick of gum, you’ve forgotten you’d watched it entirely. Even now, I struggle to remember much about it. And I only watched it a couple of hours ago.

But for the curious and people still awake at the back, Songbird is about a lovestruck couple who must survive amidst COVID-23 (a mutated new strain of the disease). The boy in question is Nico Price (KJ Apa), an immune courier who delivers packages to people in his city. The girl is Sara Garcia (Sofia Carson), a shut-in who likes to draw and speak Spanish. After Garcia’s caretaker falls ill, Price is in a race against time to get his girlfriend an immunity wristband, to prevent her from being taken to one of the Quarantine Zones (Q-Zones).

From top to bottom, Songbird is a mess. Its screenplay is a sprawling and frustrating exercise in sentimentality, often jumping to supposedly quite deep and moving moments without laying a solid foundation. In this way, the movie plays like a fifth or sixth episode in a television series, wherein the audience is expected be moved by its important moments (despite a lack of context).

One such moment is a conversation between Piper Griffin (Demi Moore) and her immune compromised daughter- Emma (Lia McHugh). Emma expresses sadness and guilt at being a burden and not being strong enough to cope with the virus. Conceptually, it’s an interesting struggle to grapple with. However, nothing in the story up until that point justifies this emotional confession. Neither her mother or father express frustration with looking after her, and there’s been no encounter where she’s being scorned for being weak etc.

This aspect is compounded by some of the more interesting aspects of the premise being sidelined. These include the notion of living as someone whose immune from the disease, and the horrifying implications of the Q-Zones (which are strongly implied to be concentration camps).

Worse yet is the screenplay playing fast and loose with its rules. Based on the technology we see in the film, the responses to people falling ill and being rounded up appear to be quite swift. Despite this, the middle part of the film is elongated to ensure that Price can hatch and carry out a plan to save his girlfriend (even though she would have been targeted much earlier).

The camera work is comprised of many sources that vary from iPhones to body cams. On the surface, this is an interesting way to portray a sense of immediacy. However, the editing and cutting between shots is so short. They’re akin to someone whose had too many Red Bulls, and decided to scroll and switch between the apps on their phone at lightning speed. And for the rare moments that do linger, they tend to come across as boringly staged and lit sequences that do not trigger any emotion. For a film that’s set during a pandemic, it’s quite a feat that the sequences of empty streets are not haunting or chilling.

Despite all these problems, the picture is not without its redeeming qualities. Chief among them is Peter Stormare’s exhilarating performance. Stormare plays the part as though he’s delivering a protracted and animated villain’s monologue from a Quentin Tarantino directed James Bond film, that happens to involve buzz words, and new lingo about COVID-19. It’s quite a display and certainly prevents the film from becoming a total tedious experience.

There are also a few charming scenes that do hit at some interesting aspects of the pandemic, such as a moment when the central couple watch a movie together via a projector and phone link up. However, these moments were few and far between for my liking.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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