A mother named Mae collapses in a grocery store as her young son watches. As a clerk tries to help, a bystander captures what happens on his phone and then uploads it to the Internet, where it catches fire and goes viral with the title “Mom ODs with kid.”
Mae then has to wrestle with the effects of what happened, as she attempts to reinvent and move forward in life: getting a new place and trying to find a job. But her Internet notoriety proves to have effects lingering much longer than anticipated.
Artfully crafted with discernment and precise intentionality, this quietly stunning short drama by writer-director Donald Broida offers a compassionate, poetic look into opioid addiction and the deleterious effects of Internet vitality, where a search result can define you for the rest of your life, no matter how long ago it happened or how far you’ve moved on from what was portrayed.
Though its narrative is pulled along by the idea and notion of Internet video vitality, its aesthetics are almost the polar opposite of the look of grainy, shaky handheld smartphone video. Instead, its visuals are characterized by a beautifully considered thoughtfulness.
Its carefully sculpted images are often wide in scope and muted in palette, and at the beginning of the film, Mae often seems to drift through them, almost as if she’s shrinking from the wider world full of harsh judgment and consequence. With its pared-down, even minimal approach, the feeling is haunted, quiet and melancholy, but it also offers a gentle nonjudgmental distance and space for the audience to discover Mae’s character and story without over-determination.
The structure weaves Mae’s present with the viral video, zigzagging between the footage of the video itself — including the pitiless comments section — and the mother’s life now, where she deals with the fallout of what happened. The consequences are not just in terms of the drug usage, but in terms of the video’s vitality. Though she’s been clean for some time, she can’t get a job because the video is at the top of the search results page when potential employers search for her name. She can’t live with her son, and she is often recognized by strangers — for better and often for worse — because of her dubious Internet fame.
Yet the film never falls into melodrama and didacticism, thanks to its careful craftsmanship and a beautifully deep and understated performance by actor Marguerite Moreau, whom audiences may know from her very different romantic lead role in the cult comedy “Wet Hot American Summer.” She portrays the role of an opioid addict with immense wells of intelligence and compassion, her face registering the hidden shame, bewilderment and anxiety of this strange situation. But she also captures Mae’s flickers of hope — a hope that fully flowers when she is with her son and keeps her moving forward despite her own fears.
“Viral” ends with an apercu that both complicates the story and broadens our understanding of Mae and of addiction itself. With one graceful, swift narrative stroke, the film makes clear just how easily one can slide into opioid addiction, and just why it’s affected a broad swath of America — and it makes for a resonance that lingers much longer than the typical viral video.