Fear and uncertainty are as familiar in 2020 as Zoom meetings and social distancing. Still, you have to stay positive, establish a healthy routine and find ways to cope with what can feel like existential dread.
That's what makes an early scene from "She Dies Tomorrow," available on streaming platforms and video on demand, so scary. During a phone call, a friend offers some advice to a young woman who's feeling a sense of claustrophobic doom: "Go for a walk, or why don't you try watching a movie?"
Both are common stress relievers for life in the COVID-19 pandemic. But be aware that watching "She Dies Tomorrow" won't distract you from what's happening. The gripping indie is about facing your dread when fearfulness itself becomes contagious.
For at least six months now, movies have been providing coronavirus catharsis. Early this year, "Contagion" (2011), a taut drama starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne, reached the hot zone of rental popularity with its fact-based vision of what would happen if a virus spread across the world and claimed millions of lives.
Just recently, "Host" arrived on the streaming site Shudder. The horror film, shot entirely on Zoom, takes place as a bunch of friends in lockdown gather online for a seance that unleashes some serious nastiness. The concept plays off of quarantine tensions and brings new meaning to experiencing a virtual meeting from hell.
"She Dies Tomorrow," written and director by Amy Steimetz, explores timeless themes that just happen to correspond to the constant worry that has become 2020's mood board. The story centers on Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who guzzles white wine after becoming convinced that she will die tomorrow.
Amy's fear doesn't appear to be an offshoot of depression. She caught it from another person, and she spreads it to anyone she physically encounters. Super creepy and superbly unresolved, Steimetz's new movie is a meditation on facing mortality that contains surprising splashes of dark humor. For instance, when Amy keeps lifting the needle of her record player to listen over and over to Mozart's gloomy "Requiem," it's a pretty clear example of how not to wallow in misery. If time is running short, why not put on some vintage Go-Go's or Prince's "1999"?
"She Dies Tomorrow" is a moody, intense portrait of trapped characters -- including a solitary scientist played by wonderful Jane Adams (HBO's "Hung") -- who must wrestle with what it means to be approaching their final day. Should they drop the limits of polite behavior and start saying and doing things they otherwise would self-censor? Is that a good choice? It's certainly an honest one.
With the real-life pandemic continuing to surge and no imminent end to it in sight, no wonder life is paralleling scary movies. In "Bird Box" (2018), wearing a mask (in this case, a blindfold) is the only weapon against mysterious creatures that provoke lethal madness with a single glimpse. There's even a relevant plot point over whether masks are necessary or just a response to a mass hysteria. But rest assured that Sandra Bullock's character stays masked and serves as the Dr. Fauci of the "Bird Box" universe.
There also are echoes of 2020 in "Children of Men" (2006), a classic dystopian film from director Alfonso Cuaron that sends a strong told-you-so message about the costs of climate change and systemic inequality. Its scenario of an infertility pandemic, coupled with huge migrations of refugees, is a nightmarish take on a future with worsening income inequality, health care disparities and brutalization of asylum seekers. Even the formidable Clive Owen has a tough time shouldering this many problems at once.