I've got to hand it to Songbird – it's the timeliest non-documentary movie of 2020. This COVID-related thriller was filmed during the current pandemic, and deals with some of the issues we're all facing right now. Judging a picture like this is tricky, given that it could theoretically play better or worse in non-pandemic times. Without a doubt, sections of the story hit a nerve. At the same time, the real pandemic is obviously more anxiety-producing than a film could ever be. That, along with a couple plotting issues, cause Songbird to yield mixed results.
The movie takes place just a couple years in the future. The COVID-23 virus has run amok. People now stay permanently indoors, having necessities delivered through special decontamination boxes in front of their homes or apartments. Phone apps allow them to track whether or not they have the virus. Whenever someone tests positive, the Department of Sanitation, run by the malevolent Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), comes to transport them to a containment camp where, according to rumors, they're simply left to die. Or worse. Infected people are garbage, slated to be thrown away. What an eerie thought!
Nico (K.J. Apa) is a bike messenger. Because he's immune, Nico is able to deliver goods around Los Angeles for his boss Lester (Craig Robinson). He rides his bike through deserted streets, seeing other people only through their windows as he drops off their packages. His girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson) has been separated from him for a while; she's contained inside her apartment with her grandmother. When grandma comes down with COVID symptoms, Harland arrives to take both of them away. Nico has to race to prevent this from happening.
Songbird has two subplots, one of which partially ties in with the Nico/Sara thread, the other of which doesn't. Bradley Whitford and Demi Moore play William and Piper Griffin, a wealthy couple who sell immunity passes on the black market. Nico attempts to procure one from them so that he can take Sara far away from the city. That makes sense. However, the movie wastes a fair amount of time on the Griffins' unhappy marriage, William's infidelity, and their sickly daughter Emma (The Lodge's Lia McHugh). They really aren't our primary concern, so these half-baked intrusions mostly serve to slow the picture down.
The Griffins are nevertheless better than the other subplot. May (Alexandra Daddario) is an aspiring singer who earns money by performing online for donations. Her most loyal customer is wheelchair-bound veteran Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser). The only connection their story has to Nico is through William – May is his mistress, in a relationship that seems unlikely and is never explained. In fact, this whole element of Songbird appears to be present solely to juice up the action in the last act. Daddario and Hauser are certainly likeable performers, but their characters feel like they're coming in from another movie.
Songbird is best when it focuses on Nico. Well-played by Apa with a cocky attitude, the character's dilemma exploits COVID issues most effectively. He's isolated from loved ones, he worries about his girlfriend contracting the virus, and when someone wants to shake his hand, it feels like an existential threat. The actor shares several tense scenes with Stormare, whose character represents pandemic fears taken to the extreme. In these moments, Songbird touches on the nervousness we all have wondering how bad the pandemic can get and what might happen if we can't get it under control. Director Adam Mason gives the movie a jittery visual style that befits those ideas.
But then the Griffins or May come in to derail the suspense, taking Songbird down story avenues it doesn't need to traverse. Nico's lifestyle, as well as his efforts to prevent Sara from being taken away, are sufficient to tap into our COVID uneasiness. When it sticks to that, Songbird makes an impact. When it doesn't, it becomes disappointingly flat.
out of four
Songbird is rated PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, sexual material, partial nudity and some strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.