Roshan Sethi (mostly) overcomes the stigma of the dreaded “sheltering in place together” movie with two lovely lead turns and a heaping helping of cultural specificity.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
To attend a film festival in 2021 is to endure a veritable wave of films that either a) make a big deal of being filmed under COVID-19 restrictions or b) even worse, try to glom the pandemic onto an existing genre to mine bittersweet drama from our once-in-a-lifetime hell. We’ve seen plenty of attempts at a “couple sheltering in place learns to live together” story in Locked Down and SXSW’s The End of Us, but first-time director Roshan Sethi‘s 7 Days manages to break the mold in a few important ways. It’s not perfect, but it makes use of its particular context to make space for two comic actors long overdue for dramatic (and romantic) consideration.
Bookending When Harry Met Sally… style reminiscences from Indian couples who recount the stories behind their love, 7 Days slams us into the high-pressure world of Indian-American dating rituals. Matchmakers and parents set up unsuspecting Indian kids for dates, which (in the world of COVID) mean heavily manicured audition tapes and awkward, halting first dates over Zoom. That’s not the case for Ravi (Karan Soni, who co-writes with Sethi) and Rita (Hala‘s Geraldine Viswanathan), who end up spending much of their first date at Rita’s place. It doesn’t go well; Ravi’s too uptight, Rita’s too much of an irreverent free spirit, and the two promise to part ways. But then shelter in place orders kick in, and the two are forced to stay together as Ravi continually fails to find a car or a hotel.
And so 7 Days unfurls, with Soni and Viswanathan’s characters feeling out their insecurities and personalities, vowing not to start dating before proximity and affection begin eking out feelings in one another. It’s a tale as old as time, of course, but there are neat little twists on the formula.
Chief among them is the sense of cultural specificity: this is a film deeply mired in the pressures and anxieties of Indian-American marriage culture, especially for younger generations. Ravi and Rita are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to familial respect and piety: The former is dutiful and wants an arranged marriage with the expected family plan, while Rita runs away from all that for the cliches of American millennial life, complete with vibrator in the bathroom and married lover (voiced by exec producer Mark Duplass) on speed dial.
It’s a tale as old as time, of course, but there are neat little twists on the formula.
But Sethi and the leads find interesting corners to explore, and use those constraints to turn their shelter in place into a kind of cultural reset. Soni, who’s made such a huge impression in Deadpool and Miracle Workers, is remarkably assured as an unexpected romantic lead. He plays up the nebbishness of his frail, neurotic Ravi, but behind that fragility lies a deep well of care that goes beyond nice-guy entitlement and into genuine gentleness. Rita, for her part, is abrasive and rebellious, Viswanathan leaning endearingly into the character’s brittle, defensive temperament. Rita knows herself far too well, and Ravi hardly knows himself at all, and that makes for some charming chemistry. They’re still tropey as tropey can be, but at least the well-timed performances elevate them.
Then the film takes a small turn, aided by the realities of the pandemic, and the third act becomes a wait-and-see unrequited love story not unlike The Big Sick — complete with unexpected bonds with the other party’s family. To say more would be to reveal too much of 7 Days’ trajectory, but it’s a move as expected by its premise as it is predictable and a bit stale.
It’s also remarkably stylish and visually assured for a film shot in a single house during quarantine, cinematographer Jeremy Mackie alternating between uncomfortable close-ups (especially as the motor-mouthed Ravi talks himself into corner after corner) and lackadaisical handheld to sell the moments of ease between the two inadvertent cellmates. Still, 7 Days rankles against its own thinness and the pain point of its premise: I just don’t know if there’ll ever be a great COVID-set love story. But for what it’s worth, 7 Days gets the closest to that point as any we’ve seen so far, and here’s hoping it gives Soni and Viswanathan further chances to show their incredible range.