By Valerie Kalfrin
Directors Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina never mention COVID-19 in their feature film “I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking),” but the pandemic is just as much a character as an inspiration for the project.
Based in Los Angeles County, the socially conscious filmmakers wanted to spotlight homelessness without being exploitative. They created a story with fellow USC film school friend and screenwriter Roma Kong about Danny, a recent widow who lives in a tent outside LA with her young daughter, Wes (Wesley Moss).
Played by Kali (“The Adventures of Thomasina Sawyer”), Danny fibs by saying they’re camping for fun, which tests Wes’s patience. While the girl wishes they could sleep inside and stays with a friend for online learning, hairdresser Danny gets around town on roller skates, visiting clients who pay in cash and assuring a prospective landlord that she’ll have the money for an apartment the following day.
After one client stiffs her and another cancels, Danny resorts to delivering food in a face mask, wondering how she’ll manage. Meanwhile, the landlord frets about germs, her chatty party-girl friend Brooklynn (BK Marie) offers her a joint, and Danny keeps saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine” whenever anyone asks about her, Wes, or her late husband.
Showing this month at the Seattle International Film Festival, the film earned Special Jury Recognition from SXSW Online 2021 for its “multi-hyphenate” storytellers. In addition to co-writing, directing, and producing (the two financed the film in part with stimulus relief checks), both appear on camera, with Molina (“Quinceañera”) as one of Danny’s irritable customers.
The result is a “memorable daylong odyssey” that’s “a marvel of multitasking and resourcefulness,” the jury said. (Our ITOL review said the film has “enormous heart” and “shines a light on the struggles that people, particularly women of colour, are facing just to keep on living during this terrible pandemic.”)
Kali called the film “a labor of love, grit, determination, and teamwork.” The directors told In Their Own League that the concept of maintaining a child’s innocence in a rough situation seemed to reflect the real-world struggles they noticed.
“People were losing a lot,” Molina said. “We make assumptions … [but] we don’t know what people are going through.”
If it hadn’t been for Los Angeles County’s temporary eviction moratorium, currently valid through June 30, 2021, “I would’ve been houseless,” Kali added.
The two dress Danny in bright colors like those at a neighborhood playground and photograph her in the sunshine, cheerful counterparts to her inner pressure. She charges her phone on a friend’s porch, totes Wes’s teddy bear to the Laundromat for a bath, crosses paths with a flirty high-roller in a convertible (Kali’s writing partner Deon Cole, “Grown-ish”), winds up in a tree, and imagines herself underwater.
“We love our metaphors,” Molina joked, observing that Danny spends a lot of the film on the move but doesn’t feel like she’s getting anywhere.
Along with using some of the cast as the crew to keep the production small, the two also drew from filmmaking influences such as director Sean Parker (“The Florida Project,” “Tangerine”) and Gareth Edwards (“Monsters,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”). Viewers might notice similarities between “I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)” and Parker’s portrayals of people living on the margins, as well as in wide shots showing Danny and Wes walking toward the city at large from their makeshift home.
Both Parker and Edwards are “people who don’t wait and don’t make excuses,” Kali said. With “Monsters,” his feature debut, Edwards depicted an eerie alien invasion on a $500,000 budget. “It was so organic, and he found a way to do it and made it happen.”
The directors care too much about Danny to leave her hanging, offering her a solution to her dilemma in “I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)” that gives her growth and grace. The filmmakers said they hope that audiences take from the film the desire to have empathy toward others and themselves.
“It’s OK not to be OK,” Kali said. “That’s the first step in acknowledging what you’re going through. Just from the pandemic, a lot of us are going through things we haven’t been through before.”