‘Life in a Day 2020’ Review: Slickly Crowdsourced YouTube Doc Sticks to Old Forms in a Changing Age of Video

Kevin Macdonald's followup to 2011's 'Life in a Day' project places the hell of 2020 in a time capsule, yet still feels a tad behind the times.

Life in a Day 2020
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

It’s been precisely a decade since the first edition of “Life in a Day” debuted at Sundance, though in internet years, that amounts to several eons. YouTube was young, Facebook was the hip subject of a hot movie, and TikTok was not yet a glimmer in a millennial developer’s eye. The film’s concept was simple but seemed quite radical: A fully crowdsourced documentary, assembled by director Kevin Macdonald and editor Joe Walker from a vast haul of amateur footage shot on a single day by over 80,000 international applicants, it sought to elevate the scrappy YouTube video into art. Since then, however, the ultra-short-form online video has become its own art form, free of assistance from prestige filmmakers. YouTube is now the old-school daddy of such faster, flashier platforms as Vine (RIP), TikTok and Triller, exploited with increasing wit and invention by content creators who were still watching Peppa Pig when “Life in a Day” did the rounds.

With that in mind, what can “Life in a Day 2020” now bring to the table? Nothing groundbreaking, certainly. Macdonald’s followup collage neatly matches its predecessor in form and function, serving another enjoyable but unavoidably surface-level survey of how the other half lives, whatever half you happen to be in: Videos flood in from Mongolian livestock farmers, Eastern European high-rise dwellers and American suburbanites alike, connected by little more than their access to a smartphone. Macdonald replicates the first film’s titular structure, building this cornucopia of clips around a 24-hour clock. While Walker has been replaced by the editing team of Nse Asuquo, Mdhamiri Á Nkemi and Sam Rice-Edwards, the rhythms and movements of his earlier work are largely replicated here; Matthew Herbert and Harry Gregson-Williams once more contribute a busy, swooping score that binds disparate fragments in a glue of general uplift.

Instead, the most vital element of the project is one that couldn’t have been entirely planned. The date on which all the film’s material was shot is July 25, 2020 — a world-on-fire time if there ever was one, as the borderless crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic united the planet in peril, while the shockwaves of the George Floyd protests were still being felt far beyond their Minneapolis starting point. These unhappy, unstable circumstances make the we-are-one spirit of the whole “Life in a Day” endeavor feel more apt than it did in 2010, even if they’re felt irregularly through the selections that have made the final cut.

For every video that feels a directly pointed entry for the 2020 time capsule — one Black woman speaks out about the police brutality that killed her two brothers, a Trump-supporting army vet rages against mask-wearing, while a quarantined bachelor names the spiders in his apartment that have become his only company — another seems a deliberately out-of-time escape from contemporary anxiety. Two men in a car sing jovially along to Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Quando Quando Quando”; a videographer gazes raptly upon a National Geographic-style vista of hot air balloons in flight; one young trainspotter’s project to film all the Class 1 railroad crossings in his region in a single day serves as a recurring structural device, though the film remains more invested in his quest than we do.

There’s a smattering of tear-jerking material too, including the devastation felt by a couple struggling to conceive a child, and — in one of a few updates from contributors to the first film — a mother’s grief for her late 24-year-old son, recently claimed by the pandemic. As in the first film, these brief shots of intense tragedy don’t sit entirely comfortably in a mosaic that devotes equal screen time to cute-animal hijinks and breathless landscape spectacle. That is, at least to some extent, the point of the exercise: All of life happens at once, after all.

Yet “Life in a Day 2020” is quick to fall back on tidy montage methods — grouped shots of babies being born, skydivers jumping from planes, believers grouped in prayer, mourners in cemeteries — that rather strenuously force a sense of global communion, rather than seeking and stressing life’s more diverse and disorienting juxtapositions. For that, you’d need to curate your own whiplash-inducing playlist of footage from manifold YouTubers, TikTokkers and camera-toting street activists. It won’t be as pretty as Macdonald’s slick, diverting jigsaw puzzle, but now more than ever, in this highly evolved, everything-is-content era, the pieces are all out there.

‘Life in a Day 2020’ Review: Slickly Crowdsourced YouTube Doc Sticks to Old Forms in a Changing Age of Video

Reviewed online, London, Jan. 24, 2021. (In Sundance Film Festival — Special Screenings.) Running time: 87 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary – U.K.-U.S.) A YouTube Originals release and presentation of an RSA Films production, in association with Flying Object. Producers: Jack Arbuthnott, Tim Partridge. Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Kai-Lu Hsiung.
  • Crew: Director: Kevin Macdonald. Editors: Nse Asuquo, Mdhamiri Á Nkemi, Sam Rice-Edwards. Music: Matthew Herbert, Harry Gregson-Williams.