I have a confession to make: I fear I cursed us all.
For years now, whenever I was ill enough to have to take time off work, I would spend my sick day watching Contagion. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie about a deadly global virus outbreak, but for some reason, I kept returning to it whenever I was battling a cold or flu strain. Fear porn? Definitely. But I worry some cruel part of me wanted everyone to feel as sick as me. I used to jokingly compare my immune system to Gwyneth Paltrow’s patient zero character; if I had to somehow pick up every new bug in the city, while my boyfriend seemingly never got sick, it seemed only fair others should suffer.
I spent last New Year’s Eve in bed in Sydney, fighting a fever from a virus I’d picked up flying home to see family in Australia. As the clock struck midnight, and I could hear fireworks in the distance lighting up the nearby harbor, I muttered a jealous curse to myself against those out celebrating a milestone I’d never get back.
Well, here we are. Sorry about all that.
When the coronavirus threat started feeling real in the US in February, I was among the scores of people rewatching Contagion (again) and sending it to the top of the streaming charts — a phenomenon I wrote about for this website. The movie felt foreboding and yet instructional (Stop touching your face! I could hear Kate Winslet’s character telling me in my head). But it was also weirdly comforting somehow — a reminder that there was a network of scientists around the world who were inordinately smarter than me and who could eventually trace and stop this thing if I just did my little bit and stayed home. "We're not trying to scare people that they're all going to die,” producer Michael Shamberg told me in March. “We're trying to scare people that you can do something."
Which is why I remember feeling so angered by what I saw as the annoying and selfish behavior of Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron), the 13-year-old daughter of Matt Damon’s character, Mitch. Quarantined at home, she spent a lot of time on her phone or complaining about feeling as if she were in jail. At one point, she even snuck out to see her vanilla boyfriend, who almost kisses her without a mask on. How selfish can you be? I remember thinking. There’s a deadly virus out here killing Gwyneth Paltrow, and you’re whining about missing prom? Girl, what are you doing?! Get a grip!
Welp. I cracked after just a week of working from home.
“One week into social distancing. Contagion didn’t make clear how boring and frustrating it is,” I tweeted on March 14. “Only now realizing that Matt Damon’s annoying bored teen daughter was the true hero of that movie.”
Again and again in 2020, I’ve found myself thinking of Jory and her quiet frustrations. In a movie without a main character — save for the virus itself — it’s she who is Contagion’s most relatable presence.
Jory isn’t a hero like Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), the CDC researcher who invents a vaccine and tests it by injecting herself and then visiting her infected father in the hospital. She’s not a villain like Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), the conspiracy theorist blogger who feeds off people’s fears by peddling a fake homeopathic cure for profit. She’s not doomed like Erin Mears, Kate Winslet’s epidemic intelligence officer, who contracts the virus while attempting to trace it on the front lines and ends up buried in a plastic bag in a mass grave.
She’s just a kid, struggling to make sense of the world around her having fallen apart, of her adolescence drifting away as she waits out the pandemic at home, feeling powerless.
“All the other characters have super-specific jobs within the pandemic that’s happening,” actor Anna Jacoby-Heron told me in an interview in mid-December, “and she was just more the normal person who’s going through it and taking each day as it comes.”
Jacoby-Heron, 25, spoke to me via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles, where she’s been living with her mom and waiting out the pandemic. In recent years, she’s filmed roles for Stranger Things, Dirty John, and The First, but now, like many actors at a precarious moment in the industry, she’s not sure what her next job will be. She’s been wary of doing interviews in the past, but the opportunity to reflect on the character after this year intrigued her.
She was just 14 when she filmed Contagion — her first-ever role — and she can recall sitting in quiet awe on set in Chicago, where CDC experts were on hand to make sure they always got the science right. She remembers struggling to understand their vision of what a pandemic would be like. “It was so hard to connect to what that would feel like,” she said. “They always said when we were shooting, ‘It’s not if this will happen, it’s when.’ But it was so hard to — how do you connect to that? I really didn’t ever think something like this would happen.”
“Now that we’re here,” she added, “I understand a lot more!”
In a life-mirrors-art moment, she recalled that at the start of the coronavirus lockdown she had to make a decision about a new boy she’d just started seeing before California’s stay-at-home order. Her mom calmly told her that, unlike her former character, she was an adult now and would need to decide for herself what was responsible. Suddenly, she felt very grown-up. (She said she didn’t see him for several weeks, but they later formed a pod.)
In many ways, Jory functions as a viewer stand-in during the movie, often just bearing witness to the chaos around her. We first meet her as she’s rushed into the hospital to see her dad who is in isolation after the shocking deaths of his wife (Paltrow) and stepson in the movie’s first 10 minutes. As she talks to him from through a phone, she is separated from his situation — like us — by only a glass screen.
We later get several close-up shots of her taking in the pandemonium around her with silent horror: at a ransacked supermarket, in an overcrowded emergency room, driving by a burning liquor store. “Where’s the fire department?” she asks.
Of course, the coronavirus hasn’t proved as deadly as the fictional MEV-1 virus in Contagion (a news report in the film’s final minutes references a death toll of 26 million worldwide), but that doesn’t make it any less eerie to rewatch during this pandemic. Shots of empty gyms, shuttered airports, and ransacked supermarket shelves are all too real. I even found myself screaming at characters for standing too close to each other and not wearing masks. “I haven’t rewatched it,” Jacoby-Heron confessed to me. “I’m living it!”
Back when she made Contagion, Jacoby-Heron got into character by focusing on what it feels like to be grounded, rather than what it would be like to live through a pandemic. “That was always where I connected with her,” she said. “You’re locked down. You’re inside.”
As the film ends, Jory’s date of birth is the 144th drawn from a televised lottery for vaccine distribution. She complains to her boyfriend via text that she’ll be “in jail” — grounded — for another five months before it’s her turn to receive a dose. “We lose spring, we lose summer, we lose another 144 days that don’t happen again,” she says to her dad. “Why can’t they invent a shot that keeps time from passing?”
It’s a distressingly relatable feeling as vaccines start being distributed across the country but when most of us still have no sense of when we’ll receive one, of when our lives might look more like they used to. “It’s going to start getting normal again,” Damon’s character tries to reassure Jory. We know that’s true, but when? How much more time?
“It’s honestly the most relatable line,” Jacoby-Heron said of the scene. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like being in school now, but being in your twenties when you’re just starting to figure out things and you have all this freedom and all these opportunities and then time just stopping.”
“Everything has shifted,” she said, recalling friends whose college experiences went entirely online this year, “and I think there’s a lot of sadness with that.”
Far too many people have had loved ones die or fallen ill or suffered hardships this year, but many others have only experienced this secondhand. Our losses have been different, harder to quantify.
It’s only now, at year’s end, that I realize I relate to Jory not just because of her boredom or loneliness or depression, but because of what she’s lost: time.
More than anything, this year has driven home the brevity of life. The wails of ambulances that haunted otherwise quiet city streets, the roars of medevac helicopters in small towns, the impersonal figures of mounting death tolls in news headlines, the images of empty seats at Thanksgiving — we were constantly reminded in 2020 that our time here is short.
Our heartache, then, for postponed weddings or sad birthdays or canceled proms or just plain human connection isn’t insignificant or unworthy. It isn’t something we needed to feel ashamed of, as if our suffering somehow didn’t measure up. It is genuine grief for the loss of something finite: We are mourning the passage of time.
“I think I’ve lost time, that’s all,” Jacoby-Heron told me when I asked what she’d lost this year. “But I’m 25; I have a lot of time left. So … perspective.”
One of Contagion’s final scenes shows Jory dancing to U2 with her newly vaccinated boyfriend at a makeshift prom her dad has thrown her in their home. He’s purchased her a new dress from an empty mall and decorated their living room with string lights and cardboard stars, trying to give his daughter a taste of one missed milestone she’ll never get back.
It made Jacoby-Heron and I think of our own birthdays this year. I spent mine in April locked down in the apartment I share with my boyfriend in New York, under streamers and balloons we had hung as a distraction from the sound of sirens in our neighborhood. Jacoby-Heron’s was in September. “It was a bittersweet moment. You want to celebrate your life,” she said. “That’s a big thing right now also: just being alive is nice.” ●