Best Of Sundance 2023: Sometimes I Think About Dying Is An Empathetic Look At Introversion

America's largest indie film festival is upon us. Gayle Sequeira keeps track of the films that deserve a spotlight
Best Of Sundance 2023: Sometimes I Think About Dying Is An Empathetic Look At Introversion

Much more imaginative than the bluntness of its title would lead you to believe, Sometimes I Think About Dying is a gentle, empathetic look at introversion, and how the desire to be included is measured against the fear of not fitting in. Over 91 unhurried minutes, it displays a perceptive understanding of the kind of quiet, reserved person for whom participating in life would mean having to put on a performance, a prospect too exhausting to contemplate. Even its titular fantasies of death exude calm — as the protagonist, Fran (Daisy Ridley), slips into dreams of strangulation or snakebite, these reveries are not gory or upsetting, just evidence of her rich interior life. 

Not that there’s much else to occupy her thoughts. In her beige and brown sweaters, Fran blends into her nondescript office, a world of emails and endless spreadsheets. Outside, Oregon appears to be just as muted and desolate as she is, always looking like light is just about to break over it, but not quite. Ridley’s posture is part of what renders her character inscrutable to her coworkers, but also what makes her so easy for the audience to read. The actress uses her physicality to convey effortlessly everything Fran finds grueling to say.

At work, her shoulders hunch faintly, in a reflexive self-protective stance, during the overwhelming awkwardness of an office social event. When she does speak, it’s like she’s out of practice, her vocal cords rusty from misuse. She avoids eye contact. Writers Katy Wright Mead, Kevin Armento and  Stefanie Abel Horowitz, on whose 2019 short this film is based, never judge Fran. Instead, by juxtaposing her against the background chatter of people who talk near-constantly without really saying anything at all, they build a great deal of understanding for why she might find it hard to join in. Through place and setting, they add a wealth of detail to Fran’s life  — the rows of decorative crockery in her cabinets you get the sense she doesn’t have occasion to take out, the microwaved dinner for one, the pre-bedtime sudoku she plays, a game for one.

Best Of Sundance 2023: Sometimes I Think About Dying Is An Empathetic Look At Introversion
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Fran’s unruffled existence is disrupted by the arrival of new colleague, Robert (Dave Merheje), who gets her attention the moment he announces that he likes uncomfortable silences. What a relief, you can imagine her thinking. As they get to know each other, however, it becomes apparent that it’s not that Fran lacks words, it’s that she’s never had someone to coax them out of her before. The film paints introversion as a self-imposed exile, in which the allure of human connections is tested by how hard it seems to build them. The friendship between Fran and Robert is written in the language of introverts, in which composing one’s thoughts on a device is so much easier than having to say them out loud. Office emails and Slack messages begin with tentative work questions, which then become windows into the senders’ dry wit and deadpan charm. Their early dates don’t plunge headlong into grand love-story territory. Instead, they belong to the realistic getting-to-know-you phase defined by too-long silences and interests that aren’t shared (yet). She likes the precise orderliness of spreadsheets. He lives for the thrill of discovering something new in each movie he watches.

Even as Fran begins to enjoy Robert’s company, the creeping tendrils of self-doubt insist that he doesn’t enjoy hers. She’s convinced that she has nothing to offer despite the film’s efforts to gather evidence to the contrary. With care and patience, Robert gets the audience to discover just how delightful she is. It’s getting her to see herself that’s the much harder task. To a person that shut-off, even gentle inquiries begin to feel like intrusions and it isn’t long before she’s chafing at his presence. 

It’s through Rob, whose kindness and easygoing nature mask a lifetime of personal failings, that the film points out that everyone else is having just as hard a time figuring life out. A trite sentiment, maybe, but to Fran, so bogged down by the weight of her own baggage, it’s a revelation. Each person is burdened by their own secrets, each might surprise us by sharing some of ours, she discovers. Within Robert’s acceptance of her, and the nudge it gives her to accept herself, lies a reminder that we’d all be better off if we saw ourselves the way the people who care about us do. This might not be novel information, but in this lowkey, unassuming drama, it lands with meaning. Towards the end, Lambert brings back the office chatter that soundtracked the first half of the film, recontextualising it to suggest: All of the excitement around mundane events? That’s how we make do. That’s how we get by. Life is hard. The kindness of strangers is what makes it easier.

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