In his new feature Things I Don’t Understand, a romantic comedy with a serious jones for thoughts of mortality, one of the things writer-director David Spaltro best understands is the value of the question and the folly of trying to nail down the definitive answer. Violet (Molly Ryman) is a disaffected, underachieving, on-again, off-again grad student who spends time away from her “pressure-free” retail job interviewing “near-deathers,” people who have come back from the brink of passing away. She’s looking for a thread of consistency in their experience that might shed some light on what actually happens in that microsecond when our bodies stop functioning, when they give up the ghost, when we step into an unknown eternity. “I’ve always wanted to know what happens when you die,” Molly says in the voiceover that opens the film, so much so that she even slashes her own wrists in a failed suicide attempt, though it’s clear from the dissatisfaction she registers with her own history of failed familial relationships and dead-end sexual encounters that her motivations for this act of desperation are far more than academic.
As encouragement for her own inquiries, Violet’s therapist (Lisa Eichhorn, of Cutter and Bone) sends her to a Catholic hospice for terminal patients where she meets Sara (Grace Folsom), a young girl stricken with liver cancer whom Violet looks upon with pity until she recognizes a bit of her own defiant intelligence lurking within Sara’s far sweeter, more forgiving and necessarily self-defensive detachment. The unexpected bond these two forge becomes the emotional nucleus around which writer-director Spaltro builds an appealing community of characters, people who influence and inform what is probably Violet’s first mature perspective on life. Soon after, two deaths, one of which resonates from the past in that community, shake Violet, whose own atheism has always served both as a conviction and a shield, and the ghosts that begin to seep into her consciousness reposition the afterlife as something more than simply a subject for existential curiosity. Agnostic in spirit, Things I Don’t Understand, which makes its theatrical premiere tonight as an opening night selection at the Burbank Film Festival, has empathy for not only Violet’s search for clarity but also for that of her friends, an amusing but never too cute gathering of bohemian misfits and hangers-on whose sometimes misguided, sometimes happily fumbling attempts to define themselves against a variety of dying lights form the tapestry of the film’s drama.
Spaltro has a sure touch with orchestrating the intertwining lives and relationships of these characters, and the way he slides and adjusts the focal plane between them, as they refract those questions of mortality and purpose that inform the film through their individual prisms, elicits faint echoes of the generous spirit of Jonathan Demme, himself a spiritual heir to the inclusive, nonjudgmental wonderment of Jean Renoir. And he draws out a lovely, unfettered performance from Grace Folsom as Sara, whose emotional integrity is informed by a serene acceptance and a biting humor that fulfills the sometimes overly wisecracking articulations of the script. There is indeed a grace to the way Folsom approaches the challenge of shedding light onto Sara’s limited world-- she lets us see the anger and the fear simmering under the surface without allowing Sara to boil over into a rage of maudlin self-pity, and she never loses the audience even though her work hasn’t a whiff of calculation about it. Folsom's big moment, in which Sara expresses the quality of anguish hidden beneath her placid and accepting demeanor, is masterful and moving, without a shred of the sort of emotional manipulation one has been conditioned to expect from even our most seasoned cinematic scene-chewers.
Violet poses a greater challenge, to the audience and to Molly Ryman— she’s an aggressively unlikable character, and she recognizes this about herself, therefore Ryman and Spaltro have to make a greater effort to get us on her side. For the film’s first half at least they are only partially successful. Ryman has a natural presence that the camera loves, but she strikes me as a bit too self-conscious as Violet, relying as she does on a battery of ticks— eyeball-rolling, snarky scoffs are favorites— to telegraph with precious little subtlety her obvious disdain for those around her and her general dissatisfaction with life. Added to the character’s apparently genetic impatience with social niceties, these affectations cause Violet to become a bit too taxing at the beginning of the film, when our empathies need to be nurtured more carefully. Fortunately, as Violet’s defenses begin to break down, so do Ryman’s and she achieves something of the unadorned simplicity of Folsom’s approach, the perfect balm for the shattered moments when Violet's own shields begin to drop.
In more ways than just the obvious, Things I Don’t Understand is a thoughtful drama that rewards a little touch of faith in the things we can’t quite put our finger on, like spiritual journeys, simple human generosity, a surprising sexual/emotional connection, and even the possibility of sweetness in the release into a void where all conscious might simply end. Happily, through his deft writing and agility in juggling his thematic concerns, Spaltro suggests a way to retain the flavor of life even when considering the abyss.
Things I Don't Understand screens tonight at the AMC Burbank 16 as part of the opening night of the Burbank International Film Festival. The screening begins at 9:00 p.m. and tickets can be purchased by clicking here. The film will also screen at the upcoming San Diego Film Festival and other festivals around the country. For updated information on those screenings, check the film's Facebook page.