Themes I Don’t Understand, by Josh Long
In the opening narration of David Spaltro’s independent drama Things I Don’t Understand, the lead character uses a word she pronounces “de-now-meant.” It took me several seconds to realize that the word she was trying to say is “denoument.” An initial red flag, this line is a good indicator for what the rest of the film will be. It has a lofty aim, but doesn’t know what to do with the lofty intention and comes off looking unsure and poorly executed.
The film’s plot centers around the character of Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman) who is writing a thesis on death. In another example of someone who aims high and misses, Violet does interviews with people with near death experiences, then tries to commit suicide, then seemingly gives up on the project altogether. It’s unclear what exactly she’s trying to learn from the study – the idea of “what happens after we die” is hardly brought up again for the rest of the film, even though it’s submitted as the film’s thesis statement.
We then follow Violet through many other aspects of her sordid post-suicidal life, where she’s sowing wild oats, perhaps burying some kind of teleological depression in a party-hard lifestyle. She lives with two roommates, a gay musician named Remy (Hugh Dillon) and a feminist playwright/activist named Gabby (Meissa Hampton). These characters have little to nothing to do with the main story, and we can only assume they are there to add flavor and comic relief. Unfortunately, both characters seem unrealistic and one-dimensional and are rarely funny. There are too many scenes with them, and they go on for too long.
After some time delving into her lifestyle and situation, we suddenly find Violet visiting a young woman named Sara (Grace Folsom) with a terminal disease – so it looks like she’s back to work with the thesis. However, this is different than the other interviews she’s been doing about near death experiences and it’s not clear how this would fit into her study. Is she just interested in death? This paper that is supposed to be the inciting incident and central theme for the film is never clearly defined. It’s even more obviously so when we realize that the thesis itself (which she turns into her therapist for some reason, we never see any college, teachers or academic anything) is called “Things I Don’t Understand.”
As she meets more with Sara, the two grow close. At the same time, Violet is pursuing a relationship with Parker (Aaron Mathias), the bartender who works in the building where she and her roommates live. Parker has some kind of dark secret, a phone that’s always ringing (why not block the number?) and he still wears a wedding ring, even though he claims he doesn’t have a wife. These two relationships slowly take over and seem to become the themes of the movie. Sara dies long before the film is over and all we’re left with is the annoying roommates, some other blasé or paper-thin supporting characters and the romantic interest in Parker.
By the time we get to the end of the movie, things are so muddled that the film seems to have no idea what it’s about. If it’s just the romance with Parker, then why is there all of this nonsense about death? If it’s about what happens when we die, why do we never hear about this after the opening narration? If it’s about figuring out why we’re here, why does the lead character never seem to ponder this except in sparse voice-over?
There are a few redeeming aspects to the film. The relationship between Sara and Violet is engaging, and it is one thing that seems to make Violet ponder her wild lifestyle and center herself a little more. The scenes they have together have some of the better dialogue in the film, and as actors the two seem to build each other up. Unfortunately, Sara dies with nearly 45 minutes left in the movie, and after that appears (as a ghost?) to Violet, only to look on or have very shallow conversations. The relationship with Parker is much less interesting. There’s little at stake, they have weak development, and the big surprise (SPOILERS) is that his wife is dead, which most viewers will assume from early in the film. Towards the end, it is clear that things are happening in the film not because they make sense but because the filmmakers want the two to end up together. What does this have to do with what happens after we die? Good question.
There are a few scenes in the film (revolving around the supporting characters) that don’t fit, and range from silly to offensive. In one attempt at comedy, the roommates attend Gabby’s theatre show (it’s a feminist show about vaginas – not the most original joke) and watch as it devolves (after about 45 seconds) into a fight between the actresses on stage. Not to mention that Gabby tells them the theatre seats 500 – anyone who’s even been to New York knows that off-Broadway theatres never seat 500 people, especially not for a performance piece about vaginas where the actresses can’t control themselves enough not to fight on stage. If it doesn’t bother you because it’s not funny, it bothers you because it doesn’t make sense.
There’s another sequence where Remy breaks up with his boyfriend soon after Gabby is rejected by a girl who’s made her think she might be a lesbian. The two roommates return to the house, dejected and rejected, encourage each other for a few moments and then decide to sleep together. It should be depressing, but the movie plays it for comedy. No one regrets it later either – there’s suggestions later in the film that this creates a pattern these characters will stick to. To suggest that homosexual characters unlucky in love will find solace in casual heterosexual sex is unrealistic, if not offensive.
While I can see that Things I Don’t Understand clearly wants to tackle big issues on film, it doesn’t know how to deliver in that area. It’s perhaps an over-ambitious attempt. Many filmmakers have tried to focus on our raison d’être, and few have done it well. There are some good moments in this film, so there’s not a total lack of competence on the part of the filmmakers; they just need to stick to words they know how to pronounce.