New Strains Makes the COVID Lockdowns All Too Real

Photo: courtesy Memory and Parori Productions.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, should we survive it, perhaps we’ll better be able to process the death toll, controversy, and utter weirdness of the coronavirus pandemic that plagued us a couple years back. Art—including that made during the pandemic itself and especially in its lockdown phase—will surely help us do so. In their confinement, Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Charli XCX, Paramore, and others made albums that helped their listeners through their isolation. In their wake, filmmakers too began to find ways around pandemic restrictions to share their art as well. Bo Burnham’s brilliant Inside, a single-room mini-concert of sorts, led the way. Others—Malcolm and Marie, I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking), Morgan’s Mask—helped viewers process their emotions and document this unique moment in history. Just now reaching American theaters, Bertrand Bonello’s COMA explored the lockdown from a teen girl’s perspective with uncommon insight. New Strains, like COMA, was made during the lockdown and similarly exploits its restrictions with a lo-fi aesthetic and artistic verve.

Just now rolling out into theaters in advance of a July digital release, Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan’s New Strains features the two writer-director-lead actors as a couple whose first vacation together is stalled by the pandemic lockdowns of early 2020. This was a time when so, so little was known about the mysterious virus making its way across continents: it could be and far too often was fatal, but the method of its transmission remained unknown. By April 2020, about half of the world’s population—over 3.9 billion people in some 90 countries—were restricted to their homes by their governments. As New Strains begins, New York City is placed under a strict lockdown, one that will have some considerable effects on a new couple in the early phases of a relationship which is going to feel some strain.

Kallia (Artemis Shaw) and Ram (Prashanth Kamalakanthan) play with fruit.
Kallia (Artemis Shaw) and Ram (Prashanth Kamalakanthan) in New Strains. Photo: courtesy Memory and Parori Productions.

Kallia (Shaw) has secured a nice apartment for their stay from a well-to-do uncle and is determined to enjoy their vacation. Ram (Kamalakanthan) is less sanguine about the prospects; he’s anxious about disinfecting their quarters and wary of any social contact. That little bit of fissure between them—her determination to live her life without subjugating it entirely to the social restrictions of the lockdown and his near-fatalistic adherence to every public-health suggestion for staying uninfected—makes for the core of the film’s thin narrative. Stuck mostly inside with little to do, Kallia and Ram find themselves infected, not by the coronavirus, but by a case of couple’s cabin fever. When Kallia ventures outside, Ram finds himself outraged by her perceived lack of consideration for his well-being; meanwhile, Kallia finds Ram’s strict lockdown obeisance more oppressive than the city’s restrictions themselves.

Over the course of their stay in the city, Kallia and Ram begin to descend slowly and surely into a weird co-dependent and infantile jealousy, unable to cope with the strain the lockdown imposes upon them. Their opposing attitudes—representative, really, of conservative and liberals’ contrasting responses—to the quickly-politicized nature of the pandemic are presented here not as a social commentary but more as an occasion for mild humor. New Strains is a comedy, though not an especially funny one, given that its humor results primarily from the two leads’ increasingly regressive behavior.

There may not be quite enough “there there,” so to speak, to sustain a truly meaningful commentary on the pandemic, or for that matter, a truly comic one, but that the film was made at all is a testament to its filmmakers resolve at a time most production was simply shut down. Shaw and  Kamalakanthan are themselves a married couple whose teaching and filmmaking works on the principle of collaboration, and here in New Strains they use a decades-old camcorder for the film’s early-aughts VHS/tv look, operate the camera themselves (or with a tripod), and employ no crew other than themselves alongside a few non-professional supporting cast members. The dialogue is mostly concocted ad hoc from a rough scenario of basic situations, then edited into shape—with some entertaining montage sequences—in post.

Kallia (Artemis Shaw) and Ram (Prashanth Kamalakanthan) sit in the apartment, holding a camera.
Kallia (Artemis Shaw) and Ram (Prashanth Kamalakanthan) in New Strains. Photo: courtesy Memory and Parori Productions.

Especially charming is the film’s quirky, idiosyncratic soundtrack, home-made by composer/multi-instrumentalist Will Epstein, using vintage toy Casio keyboards, an iPhone for the drum machine, and his own distorted voice. Epstein’s music underscores the film’s cheeky, quirky charm, with its robust melodies tinkled out on tiny toy keys and through miniscule speakers. His “Casio Hitchcock” vibe, as he calls it, lends the film a good part of its idiosyncratic lo-fi appeal.

All over the world, pandemic-era filmmakers found themselves unmoored by lockdowns and, even as those began to ease, new restrictions on their productions; that is if their projects weren’t canceled altogether. Anyone whose work survived the pandemic deserves congratulations; those who found ways to exploit those restrictions in the service of their art deserve acclaim. At its best, New Strains serves as a time-capsular depiction of the slow descent into weirdness many experienced during a period of unprecedented social isolation. As a comedy, it is not especially funny; as a drama, it is not especially insightful. But as, simply, a film, made under unique and oppressive conditions and with a creative approach to improvisation and collaboration, it’s one worth seeing and celebrating. Let’s just hope it is the last of its kind, and in the future there exist no similar such scenarios necessitating this particular kind of stress- and strain-induced filmmaking.

New Strains begins its U.S. theatrical rollout June 13 in New York City, followed by additional screenings in Williamsburg and Los Angeles before its North American digital release on Friday, July 19.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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