'I'm Fine (Thanks For Asking)' Review: A Vibrant And Validating Portrait Of Resiliency [SXSW 2021]

"How are you doing?" is a deceiving question despite its simplicity, especially when the inquiry is posed during a deadly pandemic. Many of us force smiles and internally debate whether to tell the hard truth or sugarcoat the answer. Writer/director duo Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina understand what people truly mean when they respond with quite literally, "I'm fine...thanks for asking", which makes the statement a perfect title for their debut feature. If there's any film released thus far that captures the pain, perseverance, and even pleasures of 2020, it's theirs.

I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking) follows widowed mother Danny (Kali) who is struggling to find a home for her and her eight-year-old daughter Wes (Wesley Moss). After the death of her husband, Danny and Wes start living in a tent off the side of the road while one of Danny's friends watches Wes during the day. Saving up for an apartment, Danny is only a couple hundred dollars short for a deposit. The film is set over the course of one day as Danny tries to earn the remaining sum needed for a new life. She earns money by braiding hair and delivering food through an app. When one of her clients falls through on payment, Danny is faced with a devastating decision in order to get her life back on track.

Kali is a natural storyteller both on camera and off. Her portrayal of Danny is a breath of fresh air, even with the air containing a deadly virus that is infecting everyone on the planet. Danny's struggles as a single mother attempting to bounce back from loss is a deeply emotional plot. However, Kali brings a sense of optimism and joy to her role, which makes for a dramatic performance featuring specks of comedy that shimmer between moments of hardship. When faced with the taxing decision to potentially sell her late husband's wedding ring, the film's tone shifts into one of heartfelt desperation because at its core, this is a story of grief. Loss is felt not only by her husband's death and their home, but is also evident in her estranged friendships as she struggles to decide whether she wants to conceal or reveal the severity of her situation. All of the film's plot points are poignant and thematically symphonic regarding themes of loss and perseverance.

Despite the grave subject matter, I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking) is visually stunning and luminous, especially for its humble production budget. The cinematography and costume design are filled with vibrant hues of pinks, yellows, and greens which suggest Danny's optimism and determination working for a brighter future ahead. Cinematographer Becky Baihui Chen utilizes a visual gradient that successfully captures Danny's emotional journey throughout the day and early evening. The aesthetic beauty of the film is a perfect pairing to the film's heart, which is clearly pulsating throughout each frame with music composed by Erick Del Aguila. There is a natural and effortless talent that transcends through the screen, and one can tell that this group of creators are close collaborators. Kelley Kali, Angelique Molina and writer/producer Roma Kong are all USC School of Cinematic Arts Alumni, and their collective vision is palpable. Their film is a prime example of how impactful (and important) it is to have women creating stories about other women.

Even though the film is set over the span of one day, there is ample emotion and backstory expressed through intermittent flashback images and dialogue. The limited time frame is also pertinent to the times of the pandemic in the sense that someone's whole life can change within twenty-four hours, for good or for bad. Similarly, the relationships that people cultivate over time can alter quickly or perhaps pick up like time never lapsed. These relationships and awkward interactions are part of the film's success because they are natural in relatability. For example, Danny's old friend Brooklynn (BK Marie) helps her out and also smokes her out like old times, while daydreaming about their lavish future. Brooklynn's wealthy love interest Chad (Deon Cole) is just one example of the questionable men in the film that are masqueraded as helpful bystanders or old friends. Their characters in the film further serve a reminder to the importance of the female gaze behind the camera. These juxtapositions of beauty in a position of despair as well as danger within a false context of safety all speak to the film's strong tonal shifts and balances.

I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking) is a vibrant and inspiring story to come out of the COVID cataclysm both in its narrative and also with its production. This film contains a powerhouse of talent from actors to directors, writers, and producers, many of which wear multiple hats. Filled with refreshingly vulnerable and relatable situations, I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking) is ultimately as validating as it is captivating. /Film Rating: 8 out of 10