This year’s Sundance film festival, a welcome return to in-person premieres for films that often desperately need an audible response to kickstart word of mouth, has begun with a bit of a shrug. And it’s a specifically frustrating kind of shrug, the kind that comes from initial “oh maybe” enthusiasm slowly fading into “oh of course” disappointment, something many festival attendees know about all too well.
In Sometimes I Think About Dying, what might sound like Sundance 101 on paper (the title alone read as worryingly quirky), starts out as something far less twee and far more affecting. Star Wars alum Daisy Ridley plays Fran, a withdrawn, almost entirely mute, office worker whose drab days of overhearing painfully unfunny small talk (from colleagues including The White Lotus’s Brittany O’Grady and Hacks’ Megan Stalter) and eating cottage cheese alone at home for dinner are interspersed with brief thoughts of death. They’re not exactly moments of suicidal ideation but more “what ifs”. What if my car crashed or what if that crane dragged me away, an idle mind dipping into darkness.
It’s in this first act, where we experience both the dull grind of her daily minutiae and then the grand jolt of these visions, that director Rachel Lambert’s sophomore film works so well. A lush score from Dabney Morris, coupled with Dustin Lane’s transporting cinematography (the film boasts the sort of confident sense of place that so many, mostly made-for-streaming films fail to master in the current landscape) come together to make moments of genuine loveliness, the kind that briefly take your breath away. The minimalism of the script and of Ridley’s careful, specific acting create a familiar sense of isolation to many of us, of being that close to a more lived sense of life but being unable to just go with it. There’s a great little scene of Fran pausing over what to write in a colleague’s leaving card, intimidated by the other messages of ebullience that she just can’t identify with, followed by a montage of her remembering her time at the office, sitting close but so far, and a leaving party of otherworldly excitement.
Fran’s distance from the world around her gets closer when a kind new co-worker (Canadian comedian Dave Merheje) starts and she finds his openness disarming, the pair’s at-work Slack chats graduating to a date at the local cinema. But as Fran slowly opens up, the film starts to close down. The character is kept at such a remove that we start to need a little more to maintain any form of investment. While Merheje has an inherent sweetness about him, his dialogue often ends up as inane as that of the co-workers that Fran winces at. The story of two lonely co-workers slowly finding solace in each other recalls Sam Mendes’ cruelly reviewed drama Empire of Light but while the spare dialogue of that film still delicately managed to give us a keen sense of who these people are and what they want and need, it’s harder to decipher here and so our initial emotional pull starts fading, sadly.
Characters start feeling less like people and more like indie movie constructs (an interminably long and unfunny sequence of Fran playing a game of murder with a collection of zany archetypes is a grating lowpoint) and it’s only a standout scene involving a supporting character (a superb Marcia Debonis, one of the best “that person from that thing” actors we have) that really pierces through to normality in the last act. Ridley though is consistent and sort of revelatory, an actor who has struggled to find her footing post-franchise as is often the case, delivering a surprisingly nuanced and deeply felt performance, something that could have been overly mannered in the hands of someone else, especially given the territory. She keeps us close until the end even as the film starts pushing us away.
What was so achingly effective in the first half, how Lambert and her skilled team combined score with scenery in montages that truly soared, starts feeling like filler, lumped with doing the emotional heavy-lifting for a script that needed some more flesh on its bones to come to life (it was adapted from a short which it very much feels like). Sometimes more thought is needed.
Sometimes I Think About Dying premiered at the Sundance film festival and is seeking distribution