This article is part of our 2023 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Follow along as we check out the films and filmmakers appearing at the first fest of the new year. In this entry, Rob Hunter reviews Rachel Lambert’s Sometimes I Think About Dying.
Don’t tell my mother, but we’ve all thought about dying at one time or another. Pictured how it happens, imagined what we’d look like, thought about how our friends and family would react. It’s less of a desire and more of a curiosity, something that occupies our brains during the doldrums of the day or night. Sometimes I Think About Dying introduces viewers to a character who does just that, but it’s what she does with her life next that makes for a tale worth telling.
“I’m Fran, I like cottage cheese,” says Fran (Daisy Ridley) during a work meeting introducing everyone to the small office’s newest employee, Robert (Dave Merheje). Fran’s the quiet one at work, doing her her job while the white noise of coworker banter, shop talk, and coffee machine percolation float through the air. Work is one half of her daily routine followed by a walk home, some wine and dinner, and sleep before waking up to do it all over again. A brief exchange with Robert that leaves him smiling sees Fran discover something new in a desire to switch gears and step out of her comfort zone. Of course, picturing something and actually doing it can sometimes be worlds apart.
Sometimes I Think About Dying isn’t the first film to explore the life of an introvert, but it finds its own voice by keeping things as grounded and soft-spoken as Fran herself. Director Rachel Lambert and the film’s writers (Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Kevin Armento, and Katy Wright-Mead) have crafted a warmly observant character piece here as comfortable with its easy laughs as it is with an honest sadness. The struggle to move beyond our safe little box is real, and the film acknowledges that through small steps and missteps alike.
Ridley is the heart and soul of the film and builds a character who’s never extreme or exaggerated in her shy nature. She converses and interacts, but it’s softly and with one eye always looking for the exit. Saying yes to a date of sorts with Robert exposes her to new worlds — nothing mind-blowing, just a movie, a diner, a murder-mystery party with new people — and Ridley ensures we see the dichotomy between Fran’s enjoyment and her struggle. When the latter starts to win out as she’s overwhelmed by it all, it’s no overly dramatic beat or performance that follows. It’s instead someone who wants something that might just be out of her reach, and there’s some heartbreak there.
The film isn’t quite the downer that last line might suggest, though, as Sometimes I Think About Dying is as hopeful as we are about Fran’s future. There are obstacles in her way, namely her own head, but the desire for change, for something new, and for human connection is a powerful thing. Soon the fantastical images in her mind of her corpse strewn with bugs in a forest have something else instead — a smile, directed her way, and promising a different kind of outcome.
Lambert’s film nails the mundane, soul-sucking nature of office life — and sometimes of life itself — from its opening act. We’re with Fran the entire time, but we don’t even hear her speak for the first ten minutes as we’re instead inundated with the kind of office chatter that exists simply to kill the silence. Her coworkers are a mix of faces both familiar and new with supporting turns by Meg Stalter, Parvesh Cheena, and a terrific Marcia DeBonis as a boisterous personality retiring with plans for a big cruise.
Sometimes I Think About Dying is set in a small, coastal town in Oregon (and filmed in Astoria, OR), and the environment plays an equally big role here. It’s gray and cold outside — not enough to hide the beauty of the ocean, trees, and landscape, but enough to dissuade everyone from spending too much time outside admiring it all. Lambert and cinematographer Dustin Lane use it well as shorthand for the ease with which we shut ourselves away from others. It’s just so much easier to fall asleep on your own floor than head out into the cold for a date with the unknown.
The film wisely avoids tilting Fran into severe depression or giving a name to her situation. She’s simply lonely, as much through her own choices as through her situations, and while Robert may not be the cure to what ails her — no one ever is — time outside of her own head is certainly a step in the right direction. Sometimes I Think About Dying offers up that simple observation with a dash of humor and hope, and that’s a prescription that could benefit us all.