Thursday, October 18, 2012

I Understand How Good This Film Is: "Things I Don't Understand" (2013)



David Spaltro goes and gives us another character to care about, and follows up his very good "...Around" with an excellent "Things I Don't Understand."

Violet (Molly Ryman) is a troubled grad student writing a thesis on what happens do us when we die. She is a roommate, in an apartment above a bar, with two flaky artist types- Gabby (Meissa Hampton) and Remy (Hugo Dillon). The trio are being evicted unless they can come up with an astronomical amount for a deposit. She drinks too much, and flirts with stone-faced bartender Parker (Aaron Mathias), who has his own set of problems concerning his former wife.

Violet is seeing a therapist, Dr. Blankenship (Lisa Eichhorn), who in turn sends her to a hospice to get to know terminal cancer patient Sara (an excellent Grace Folsom). Sure, despite a suicide attempt, Violet is not about to die, and while the therapist's motive may have been to show Violet she doesn't have it that bad, Violet and Sara become good friends. As the deadline for the deposit payment approaches, Violet tries to keep her somewhat hectic life together, but things unravel in a few very surprising ways.

Spaltro delivers a dark character study that would have been romanticized in other hands. Lonely girl in the big city who befriends a bunch of "flaky" people, this could have turned into a mild Jennifer Aniston or Reese Witherspoon vehicle, complete with a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner and a play about vaginas that you know is going to be a train wreck from its opening seconds. But Spaltro writes us Violet, and I was immediately caught up in her troubled existence, as she used her thesis as an excuse to really discover if this was it in life. His opening few minutes, which provides exposition in a new way, is great, and I was immediately onboard.

Molly Ryman never makes Violet out to be a victim, and even keeps her likable as her character makes some bad decisions. She doesn't play her as a wide-eyed innocent caught in the big bad city, Violet deals with the disappointment her life has become by repeating old but comfortable actions. Ryman has many great scenes, explaining Violet, especially with Folsom's Sara. The two form a very real friendship, and Sara again does not go in the "inspirational dying chick" direction that many other writers would have chosen. Folsom has some wrenching scenes here, and handles them with finesse. Parker is an enigma, as Violet finds out when she tries to get to know him. He is distant, and Mathias doesn't play him as brooding but simply sad. Hampton and Dillon take what could have been wacky roomies roles and turn them into something special, especially in the Thanksgiving dinner scenes, where almost everything goes wrong for them, but without broad comedy to lighten the viewer's load. Spaltro brings up some heavy topics, but only in the context of Violet's life. He doesn't try to answer the heady questions, he lets the viewer find out how all of "this" pertains to Violet, never spoon feeding her, or us.

The film has so many opportunities to take the easy way out in a scene, but Spaltro keeps his film dark and thoughtful, but never boring. His direction is fluid, the script moves, and the editing is fantastic. This was shot on location in and around New York City, as was "...Around," and this location just cannot be copied well. While the final plot twist seems a little convenient, I was so taken by these characters that I didn't take time to balk.

"Things I Don't Understand" is currently making the festival rounds, and finding success there. Of Spaltro's output so far, this is the best (and a special mention to co-producer/crew member Jason Shahinfar, who did the awesome "Cut from Home" a little while back), and should be seeked out. If I saw more than ten films in a current year, this would be in that top ten, so I will just give up the soundbite- This is one of the best films of the year. Understand? (* * * * *) out of five stars.