The heyday of the COVID-19 pandemic feels so long ago, but it was less than two years ago that my family was unable to meet in person, with celebrations for birthdays, baby showers and holidays conducted over Google Chat. The rituals that developed around the pandemic are faded, replaced by careful-but-persistent new habits appropriate for this endemic age. There were times during 2020 in which I sat up at night trying to harness memories of what it was like before the virus. There are nights these days where, particularly after a long day of being a member of the working world, I try to think back to what it was like when we barely saw anyone for almost an entire year. It’s hard to remember. My brain won’t let me.
All told, my family had a better pandemic experience than many. Although there were illnesses, we thankfully avoided losing anyone in 2020. We never had to participate in a horrible end-of-life video call with a non-responsive loved one, for instance.
We Are Gathered Here Today is set in July 2020, and the Stone family can’t gather together to mourn the last moments of patriarch Henry Stone (Peter Jason). Like many families a few years ago, they’re forced to witness their formerly strong leader succumb to the ravages of COVID-19 in a Zoom room. It’s a heart-wrenching experience, and the stress causes old familial squabbles to re-emerge in the most awkward ways. This is the type of story that would normally be set around a funeral or a wake, with characters filtering in and out of the family home. Writer-director Paul Boyd embraces the awkward confines of the Google Chat grid to create a unique and generally compelling family drama.
Henry’s condition worsened quicker than anyone realized. He wasn’t an anti-masker or a COVID-19 skeptic; he caught his case while playing a game of tennis with friends. In less than a week, he was on a ventilator. Days later, his doctor (DaJuan Johsnon) had to make the call to reappropriate that device for a patient more likely to survive. Due to the speed of his disease, his eldest son, Peter (Danny Huston), is trapped overseas for work. He can’t make it back in time to see his father off. The only possible way of saying goodbye is a Zoom — so he starts contacting everyone who might want to say goodbye.
It’s an expansive ensamble. Faye (Jenny O’Hara) is Henry’s grieving wife; Nancy (Nicole Ari Parker) is Peter’s ex-wife, still in the states and dating COVID denier Jeremy (Baker Chase Powell). Their children appear on the call, as do Nancy’s extended family. It’s a lot of faces and a lot of personalities. Boyd gives everyone at least one defining trait and one contribution to the ongoing conversation, but it’s honestly somewhat hard to keep track of everyone; frankly, having done 21-person video calls for important events, it’s pretty authentic.
Although I’ve never taken part in a Zoom goodbye, the level of drama that engulfs Henry’s chat feels a little unrealistic. Hard to knock a movie for injecting some drama into its story, though. Certain characters deny the existence of COVID. Others insist on discussing the Black Lives Matter protests. Mothers argue with daughters. Sons argue with their fathers. It’s dysfunction of the highest order.
My greatest criticism is that there are moments toward the end of the film where Henry’s dying face is included amongst his squabbling family. I can see what Boyd was going for with the creative choice as the Stones lose sight of decorum in their darkest hour, but it also starts to feel a little funny and not in the dark or clever way for which the film is reaching.
Still, Huston, Parker, O’Hara and company are all well-suited to the roles they play, and it’s through their determination to make the video chat style work that anything comes off as serious. Many films over the past few years tried to embrace storytelling through a virtual meeting. Few have succeeded. This one does a pretty good job of it.