Katie Holmes turns out to be one of the best chroniclers of the COVID-19 lockdown to date: Her sophomore feature as a director, “Alone Together” (which she also wrote), captures many vivid details on the subject overlooked by even documentaries.
But Holmes’ artistic ambitions aren’t lofty, as she seems to have set her sights on Lifetime movie rather than Oscar bait.
The opening scenes are stunning. On March 15, 2020, as news alerts flood the airwaves, June (Holmes) ventures outside her building, on her way to an Airbnb upstate booked by her boyfriend, John (Derek Luke), to wait out the pandemic. She’s been told by her employer it should all blow over in two weeks. (Ha!)
She wanders through empty streets, waits on a ghostly subway platform until an announcement advises that the next train is 25 minutes away. When she finally makes her way to Grand Central Terminal, everything on the departure board is showing “canceled.” It’s overwhelming to be reminded that these scenes from a post-apocalyptic horror flick were our reality.
The lady in the Grand Central kiosk suggests taking a Lyft, and June heeds her advice without thinking twice, despite her destination being about 100 miles away. This is the first sign that suspension of disbelief is requisite. (A character in Andrew Ahn’s “Fire Island” has to take a cab from Bushwick to the Fire Island Ferry more than 40 miles away, but that film at least has the good sense to acknowledge that the ride would be obscenely expensive.) During the trip, June asks her driver (Neal Benari) how he has managed to procure hand sanitizer because she can’t find it anywhere. This banter has enough resonance to help us overlook that first plot hole.
When June arrives at the Airbnb, she can’t find the hidden keys to the place anywhere. John has canceled to be with his father, leaving June to her own devices. After a very brief meltdown, she sees Charlie (Jim Sturgess) emerge from inside the house. The place has apparently been double-booked. After unsuccessfully persuading Charlie to find lodging elsewhere, because he at least has a set of wheels, she settles for sharing the rental with him.
The film’s premise reeks of escapist fantasy, as June and Charlie grow closer and develop romantic feelings as a matter of course. Singles wary of all the quarantining and social distancing in the past two years may very well have indulged in daydreams like this; being stuck with an attractive and kind stranger and falling in love would be a best-case shut-in scenario, no matter how impossible and corny that sounds.
Nevertheless, Holmes periodically brings us back to COVID-19 reality, which are the parts that make the film special. June works through a list of restaurants’ phone numbers, and each one she dials leads to a voice recording about closure. One particular standout scene finds June FaceTiming her godfather (Ed Dixon), who suffers from dementia. He no longer knows who she is despite having raised her, but they still share a heartwarming moment singing “Blue Moon” together.
But, oh no! There’s still the boyfriend back in the city. Will June end up with Charlie, who encourages her to never forget herself, or John, who suggests that she should abandon the novel she’s writing to work on a cookbook? How will she even choose? This doesn’t have anything to do with the pandemic anymore; it’s “Dawson’s Creek” all over again. Unfortunately, Holmes opts for the most obvious outcome, which happens to be the worst possible in terms of distinguishing the film from fluff.
The film does get ridiculous at times, true to its TV-movie aspirations. June arrives at the Airbnb with a weekend bag, but she inexplicably has access to an entire wardrobe. Holmes has as many costume changes in a day as the late André Leon Talley. One moment June is inconsolable over the devastating news of her godfather’s death and her inability to give him a proper funeral due to the pandemic; in the next, she is all smiles on a bike ride with Charlie.
Charlie cuts up a shirt to make face masks, yet we seldom see June and him actually wearing them. The one time Charlie has his mask on to visit his mother, Deborah (Melissa Leo); they pull down the masks to speak to one another. Granted, there were definitely people in real life who did exactly that. At least Charlie and Deborah try to maintain social distancing.
“Alone Together” frequently hints at Holmes’ gifts as a storyteller, so it’s disappointing that she has a proclivity for romance-novel fodder. If she could have workshopped the script somewhere and honed in on authentic feelings outside conventional narratives, she has the potential to be taken more seriously as a filmmaker. June and Charlie don’t have to have sex. They don’t have to be in love. The story could have been about two strangers from different walks of life who come to rely on each other and give each other strength in the face of unprecedented challenges.
As is, the film is slight, a top-shelf vanity project and TV movie at best.
“Alone Together” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.