On the surface, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Viral follows a well-trodden path through the template of a familiar genre. Sisters Emma (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and Stacey (Analeigh Tipton), who’ve recently moved to California, are separated from their teacher father (Michael Kelley) when their town is quarantined in the midst of an apocalyptic viral outbreak that quickly spreads throughout the world. Emma, who doesn’t have the confidence of her older sister when it comes to boys, misses their mother, who’s yet to move into their new home for reasons that appear to have little to do with her professional commitments. Naturally, one expects that, by the time the killer virus has laid waste to the lives of their friends and neighbors, this family will heroically struggle to keep itself intact, and that the younger of the two sisters will have summoned more than just the courage to give Evan (Travis Tope), the cutie who lives across the street, her cellphone number.
And one’s expectations are duly met, though the filmmakers notably doodle in the margins from the start, slightly reorienting our perspective on the familiar tropes of both the teen and apocalyptic genres, making them feel almost new again. Early on in Viral, when only the audience is privy to the story’s looming parasitic catastrophe, Emma is caught by a friend, Gracie (Linzie Gray), “creepin’” on a boy from a distance, watching him swap saliva with a girl as if in revolt against the soul-crushing sea of antiseptic-orange lockers that surround them. Throughout, the most performative aspects of teenagehood are seen less as flaws than as sparks for rebellion, like the scene where students go to a rager in defiance of a curfew that’s issued after several teens come down with the virus. Where a nastier film might have treated how the party becomes ground zero for the virus’s spread as a punchline, Viral pushes the carnage to the sidelines so as to less cynically home in on how young lives cope with danger in communal spaces.
There’s a sense that the scant screen time afforded to the grotesqueries of the virus and the military operation that tries to control it is due to budgetary constraints, but the film’s screenplay is canny for how it makes absence itself feel like a test of Emma and Stacey’s sisterhood. These young women, who clearly love each other even when they’re getting on each other’s nerves, struggle not only with an apocalyptic threat to their bodies, but also with the knowledge of things that have been kept from them. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” says a frustrated Emma upon learning about the indiscretion that explains why their mother is away. No doubt realizing that she was probably too young to know is enough for Emma to effectively grow up, and Black-D’Elia and Tipton are so sensitively attuned to the emotional push and pull that shapes their characters’ relationship that Emma’s coming of age becomes the locus around which surviving the killer virus is made possible.