Coastal Elites| HBO Films
When a filmmaker announces they are producing a film in 2020, you honestly have no idea what to expect.
The idea of shooting remotely is not a new or inherently revolutionary filming tactic. But within the context of the pandemic, what could the plot possibly be about? What kind of story could you tell in a world attempting to normalize the abnormal?
Director Jay Roach’s and screenwriter Paul Rudnick’s solution is this: tell what you know, that being the “new abnormal.”
“Coastal Elites” is an HBO film that promotes itself as a “socially distanced satire.” Six months into the hellscape that has been 2020, five characters from different backgrounds give soliloquies about the contemporary state of America.
Miriam (Bette Midler) is a Jewish woman who is charged with assault after a public altercation with a Trump supporter. As she tries to avoid indictment, she divulges the source of her anger towards President Trump and his supporters’ vilification of then-candidate Hillary Clinton.
Mark (Dan Levy) is an openly gay actor who hopes to secure his dream role as a queer superhero. However, a dehumanizing audition leaves him questioning the state of LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood.
Callie (Issa Rae) is a former friend of Ivanka Trump who has a wealthier background in comparison to most black women. However, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Callie ruminates on how even with economic privilege, black people still exist at the disposal of white people.
Clarissa (Sarah Paulson) is a mental health guru who hosts a meditative livestream. However, in the midst of her meditation, she has a meltdown from the stress of dealing with her family’s pro-Trump politics.
Lastly, Sharynn (Kaitlyn Dever) is a nurse working in the emergency ward at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While already overwhelmed by the number of cases per day, an unexpected connection with a patient causes her to reevaluate her perception of America’s sociopolitical climate.
The entire setup feels like an adaptation of an absurdist play that does not exist. I am fascinated with Theatre of the Absurd, a couple of examples being “Waiting For Godot” and “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” If going to a public venue was not a potential biohazard, I would love to see a story like this on stage.
“Coastal Elites” being a film is arguably its biggest detriment. While still entertaining, the format does not allow the loosely connected stories to reach the full potential they deserves to.
None of the characters’ monologues are shot in one take. While used sparingly, there are very noticeable cuts that interrupt the flow of the dialogue. Not only that, but each character is set up to interact with an off-screen audience. This is where the medium of live performance could better demonstrate the skill being put to use by Roach and Rudnick.
However, I fully acknowledge those suggestions are too demanding given how the pandemic has impacted the traditional workplace environment. My critique still stands, but I understand the limitations of their craft and appreciate what they produced as a result.
Above all else, what strengthens the potential drawbacks of its format and absurdist take on contemporary America is the cast. All of the performances are engaging and deeply moving in their own right.
Bette Midler plays up her most well-known characteristics, but it is done in a surprisingly poignant way. Dan Levy’s and Issa Rae’s assessment of the “woke” commodification of historically marginalized people is so dead-on that it left me with chills.
Sarah Paulson is expectedly great, but what made me enjoy her performance more was the context behind it. The idea that after eight seasons of “American Horror Story,” this has been one of her most anxiety-inducing roles is amusing.
What I believe to be the standout performance is by Kaitlyn Dever. I had primarily known her for her role in “Last Man Standing.” My parents and I only watched one season, but we agreed she was one of the highlights.
It seemed that she was getting major roles overnight. She starred in the hit comedy “Booksmart,” she broke audiences’ hearts in the Netflix miniseries “Unbelievable,” and she is cast to play Zoe Murphy in the “Dear Evan Hansen” film adaptation.
Even after watching her in “Unbelievable,” I was struck by how much acclaim she had received. However, after watching her emotional but hopeful performance at the very end, I have been happily reminded why she is a rising talent.
One of the biggest criticisms I have seen leveraged against the film is its social commentary. While I do not agree with them, I do see why people would find it to be loaded.
This film covers the tribalistic nature of American politics, the need for minority representation, the hereditary compliance in white supremacy and the seemingly apocalyptic implications of the pandemic’s longevity. That is a lot to chew on, and people who turn to media as a form of escapism may understandably feel force-fed these current events.
Can the film be very on the nose with its perspective? Of course. However, I do not see it as any less obvious than a film that promotes a conservative point of view.
In this era of American politics, there is nothing subtle about where people on opposite ends of the spectrum stand. These past five years have brought out the ugliest aspects of our country and its history. Many of us previously believed it was best not to address them. However, given this year, hindsight is unequivocally 20/20.
Say what you will about how straightforward the film’s politics are, but it is written and acted in a way that feels like real people are speaking on their experiences. The circumstances may seem unbelievable to those who have not endured it personally, but the truth is always stranger than fiction.
Ultimately, “Coastal Elites” will serve as an interesting time capsule years down the line. It could serve as a useful perspective for either people who were too young to fully comprehend the implications of this year or people who will have repressed this year faster than they did after 2016.
However, we cannot forget this year. We cannot forget what has happened if we do not want another terrible year like this one. “Coastal Elites” satirizes events we would all like to forget but shows us why we should always remember.