We’re likely to endure a glut of COVID-19–themed entertainment in 2021 and beyond, even as much of America is more inclined to look to the future than to revisit the recent past. So “7 Days,” a romance premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, has two distinct advantages: It’s among the first of these films and it’s fueled by a genuinely compelling backstory.
Director–co-writer–professional overachiever Roshan Sethi is also a radiation oncologist who was transferred, in May of 2020, to overburdened COVID wards. He was also quarantined from his boyfriend, actor and co-writer Karan Soni (“Deadpool”), and when Sethi’s residency ended, the pair reunited with the desire to create something new together. Their personal experience is the film’s greatest asset; the loneliness, desperation and hope they evoke comes across as heartfelt and true.
Soni brings a similar sincerity to his role as Ravi, an Indian-American researcher whom we meet on a blind date with Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan, “Bad Education”). They seem to have a lot in common: They’re old-fashioned, cautious, and looking to continue their parents’ tradition of an arranged marriage with conservative gender values. They have an awkward but genial picnic together, after which they learn that the county is on COVID lockdown, and Ravi can’t get back home.
Despite his mother’s anxiety about the impropriety of it all, Ravi has no choice but to stay at Rita’s apartment for a week, until the quarantine ends. But before he even has time to get his bearings, she confesses that she went on the date to please her mother, with zero intention of following through. What’s more, she has no plans to keep hiding her true self in her own home. So much to his absolute horror, he’s not only living with an unmarried woman, but also one who drinks copiously, shares blunt details about her very active sex life, swears without restraint, and generally exists in a way that would appall both his and her parents.
What this really means, of course, is that she has seven days to loosen him up, he has seven days to teach her to cook and clean for her own sake rather than his, and together they have — yup — one week in which to potentially fall in love.
It’s not quite as predictable as it sounds, given a major turn of events that brings some darkness into their opposites-attract bickering. But with only two characters, a great deal does hinge on their chemistry. Fortunately, the actors also appear together on the TBS series “Miracle Workers,” and their evident comfort with each other is essential.
In some ways, Soni has the hardest job here: He’s got to make the rigidly old-fashioned, obsessively uptight Ravi likable enough that we want to see him end up with an independent woman. But Viswanathan has some hurdles too, and they wind up being tougher to overcome.
It may be inevitable that Ravi’s character has more depth, since he’s played by the actor who also created him. Viswanathan is just as committed to the role, but Rita seems underwritten by comparison. Most notably, the script makes a major, and uncomfortably elided, miscalculation involving consent a third of the way through that turns her into a potential villain. It takes a lot of work on the actress’ part to get us fully back on her side. The production team, which includes Mark and Jay Duplass as executive producers, achieves an impressive level of intimacy in a variety of ways, from the homey and believably cluttered set design to the charming, “When Harry Met Sally”–esque couple interviews that bookend the film.
Sethi, making an impressive directorial debut here, is smart enough to undercut the sweetness with a palpable air of unease. The movie was shot in Thermal, California, and the bleak desolation outside Rita’s apartment is an effective reminder that a COVID romance is, for all the rom-com tropes on display, its own genre.
There will be more movies from this era to come, and presumably they’ll develop distinct tropes, too. But in these waning days of the pandemic, when some are safe and some are not, Sethi’s glance backwards feels just real enough to leave a prickly imprint.
“7 Days” is making its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.