Pick Up

By Clare Cooney | Drama
Ex-lovers reconnect on a car ride during the pandemic. Then their masks come off...

Nina is on her way to the airport to pick up Greg. But this is no ordinary ride: Greg is her ex-boyfriend, and they’re seeing each other for the first time in months… in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As they make small talk, they navigate several questions. Windows up or down? Masks on or off? But as the ride continues into the evening, another unspoken set of questions emerges: what happened between them in the past, and what do they mean to each other now.

Written, edited and directed by Clare Cooney — who also features as the co-lead, along with co-producer Chris Rickett — this moody, luminous short romantic drama examines how the pull of love, longing and attraction persist, even when things seem officially over. But it also examines how the overarching circumstances of a global pandemic are shaping people’s emotional lives in uncertain and unpredictable ways.

Essentially a two-hander with a significant portion taking place in a car, the cinematography by Olivia Aquilinia takes advantage of the California magic hour, as the burnished late afternoon light gives way to a mysterious night. The emotional arc between Nina and Greg follows a similar progression: they start with a slightly awkward but sunnily polite friendliness that veers close to their intimate knowledge of one another’s patterns and foibles, but then shy away from “going there.”

Being a two-hander, the dialogue does a lot of the narrative heavy-lifting, establishing characters and their shared past with an elegant, perceptive economy. As they chat, Nina and Greg tiptoe closer and closer to familiarity. But there are unspoken obstacles between them, the most immediate of which is the pandemic. They initially navigate whether or not they should sit next to each other, keep the car windows up or down and then talk with masks on or off. The uncertainty is partly because they don’t know if they are good enough friends to share the same bubble — which begs the bigger question of where they stand with one another.

The performances by Cooney and Rickett deftly capture this push-pull dynamic, as the characters deal with both doubt and connection. Both beautifully delineate the comfort and connection of former lovers, layered with doubt and self-protection. Eventually, their conversation slowly peels off these layers, though not without difficulty. Their physical masks come off, but the emotional ones don’t quite fall off as easily. In some ways, the pandemic has reinforced their existing tendencies of avoidance, isolation and hiding their vulnerabilities, and these aren’t shed so easily — to both characters’ poignant regret.

Shot with a skeleton crew during the Covid-19 pandemic, “Pick Up” intertwines the uncertain social dynamics brought about by the global health crisis with the fraught emotional ones of a former couple. Many have speculated whether or not the pandemic will help us reshape our lives to reflect our true priorities, while others instead think it will prompt a whole level of escapism as we let off steam.

But “Pick Up” offers a more nuanced, complicated view. The isolation may force us to face the knottier, thornier aspects of ourselves, whether it’s our craving for any kind of relationship in the void of connection or the deep gnawing feelings of past rejection and sadness. Or, it may also help us put off reckoning with the consequences of our words and actions. Both Greg and Nina have to deal with their past, but despite their physical proximity for a few hours, the distance between them is farther than ever.

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