Fran (Daisy Ridley) is the central character of “Sometimes I Think About Dying”. She doesn’t speak until 22 minutes in. Not one word. The first thing she says is matter-of-fact to an extreme: “I’m Fran. I like cottage cheese.” There’s no mystery behind why she says it. She’s at an office meeting where everyone is asked to introduce themselves by sharing their favorite food. We’ve seen her make a meal of cottage cheese already. Everything else about her is a mystery and remains so. There’s something refreshing about a film not feeling the pressure to explain. Billy Wilder once put together a list of tips for writers, one item being: “A tip from [Ernst] Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” directed in an intriguing style by Rachel Lambert, operates on this principle, and is mostly successful.
Fran lives in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. She works in an office, creating spreadsheets all day, surrounded by the banal conversations of her co-workers. Fran is mostly invisible in this close-knit group. (The film really captures office jobs, even down to the excitement when someone brings in donuts for the group.) At night, she pours a glass of wine, eats cottage cheese, does Sudoku, goes to bed. Wash, rinse, repeat. But Fran has a secret: her waking life is overrun by fantasies of seeing herself dead. She is a corpse in the forest. She lies dead on an empty beach. Bugs crawl over her body. She imagines herself being hung from a crane. These fantasies are alarming and quite literally suicidal, but she takes no action towards suicide as a goal. She doesn’t seem particularly depressed. The film resists explanation.
Into her suicidal ideation fugue state strolls a new co-worker, Robert (Dave Merheje), who is a charming extrovert. He has no preconceived notions about her and doesn’t treat her like she’s invisible. They go to the movies. They go out for pie afterwards. They are invited to a party where the guests play a murder-mystery game. Fran actually talks and participates. She tends towards the literal; she doesn’t really “get” humor or nuance, but he’s intrigued. He likes her. Fran’s death fantasies are now humorously interrupted by visions of Robert. It’s unclear where any of this will go.
All of this sounds a little corny, but “Sometimes I Think About Dying” really isn’t corny, mostly due to Lambert’s dream-like and slightly surreal approach. Shots of the town, the beautiful environment—its dusks, river, rain-wet roads, circling birds—are not used as transitional second unit material, but woven into the narrative, showing up in the middle of scenes, almost as though emanating from Fran’s dissociated state. This gives a surreal subjective atmosphere to Fran’s life. The same goes for Fran’s house. The decor looks like it comes from 1954. There’s a china cabinet. Fsloral-patterned armchairs. Did she inherit the house from her grandmother? We never know.
Ridley does a good job avoiding the traps of a character like Fran. Fran may rarely speak, but she is not shy. Ridley doesn’t overdo Fran’s “quirkiness”. She is believably abstracted, as though Fran can barely be dragged out of her death-wish fantasy life to actually converse with the person right in front of her. In Ridley’s hands, Fran is not a bundle of Awkward Lonely Girl cliches. She’s an enigma. And Merheje is a delight as Robert. Robert seems like a very real guy, with a feeling for people, an enjoyment of the moment, a gregarious ease in the world. It’s somewhat mysterious why he would be drawn to a mostly silent woman like Fran, and the film’s reluctance to explain any of this is admirable. But “Sometimes I Think About Dying” feels like it needs one more “act” to complete its arc. It’s an unfinished bridge. The film attempts an eventual catharsis, but there’s just not enough information to get us across the river. We’re left hanging.
This unfinished quality may be due in part to its origin story. Co-written by Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Kevin Armento, and Katy Wright-Mead, “Sometimes I Think About Dying” is a full-length version of a 2019 award-winning short film directed by Horowitz. The short film, in turn, is based on a 2013 play by Armento called Killers, which features two unconnected-yet-intertwined stories, one of which is about a woman who dreams of dying. The film adaptation focuses only on the death-wish character, excising the other narrative entirely. This might be why the end result feels unfinished. The gaps are intriguing, but two and two doesn’t quite add up to four.