“I’ve always wanted to know what happens when you die.” – the opening line of David Spaltro’s Things I Don’t Understand
Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman) listens to people talk about their near-death experiences and takes notes. She is writing her thesis on the topic. Violet is uptight-looking and very pretty, with glasses and a severe expression, primly writing as people talk about floating towards a white light, of not feeling any more pain, of experiencing a benevolence so great it could only be called Love. The questioning and searching of the voiceover that accompanies the opening sequence of this beautiful film sets us up for where we are headed, and even with all the plot-twists and multiple character story arcs, the film never forgets what it is about. It has a strong script, and an even stronger subtext of loneliness and yearning, and somehow, as if by magic, these seemingly disparate threads are woven into an interconnected whole. Despite its darkness and obsession with death, Things I Don’t Understand is actually about what it means to be alive.
Through the opening voiceover, we learn a little bit about our main character, Violet. She comes from a high-achieving family, and her parents feel she has derailed her life completely. She has always been obsessed with death (we learn why later), and her obsession has led her to a suicide attempt. You get the sense that it is not so much crushing depression that makes Violet cut her wrists, but a gnawing curiosity about what comes after, a hope that she can maybe get close to … God? Is there a God? Violet stands alone in a magnificent church, staring up at the altar. She sits in bars, crowds of people chattering around her, and she remains separate, isolated in her pain.
All of this is in the first five minutes of the film, and so we may think that we are in for a pretty bleak time. But one of the most unique things about Spaltro’s film is how funny it is, how affectionate he is towards all of these crazy characters, and how much the underlying darkness can take the comedy added to it. Shakespeare knew he had to trot out a clown and a dancing bear in the middle of his tragedies, it’s one of the oldest and smartest tricks in the book. Spaltro understands that intuitively.
Shot in New York on a shoestring, Things I Don’t Understand manages to do quite a lot with the little resources available to the director and crew. The cast is excellent. The locations are perfectly chosen, and exquisitely shot (the cinematographer was Gus Sacks). There’s a great mood in the film, in almost every shot, the colors dark and green and blue, reflecting the mainly nighttime world in which the characters operate.
Violet works in retail as perhaps the grumpiest book store clerk in the entire five boroughs of Manhattan, and spends her free time interviewing people about death, as well as getting wasted every night in the bar downstairs from her Brooklyn loft, flirting hopelessly with the bartender (Aaron Mathias). She is promiscuous with a fierce devotion. She wakes up hungover in a different bed almost every morning and staggers home in a constant Walk of Shame to commiserate with her two roommates, both of whom function beautifully as comedic relief in the film. There is Remy (Hugo Dillon), the trust fund boy who wants to be a musician, who spends most of his time getting stoned and avoiding responsibility. There is Gabby (Meissa Hampton), the cuckoo breathy-voiced activist, who spends her time doing yoga and writing a play about the glory of the “gaping vagina” (a direct quote), while clearly in strong denial that she is a sexual creature in any way herself. The roommates are misfits, all of them, and yet their dynamic together has the shared harassed feeling so common to young New Yorkers, living on top of each other in less-than-ideal situations, and trying to remember why the hell they had moved to New York in the first place.
Through a recommendation from her psychiatrist, played by the great Lisa Eichhorn who manages to infuse her character with humor, humanity, and depth just by showing up, Violet goes to interview a young woman dying of cancer in a Catholic hospice center. The woman’s name is Sarah, and she is played by the radiant and spikily funny Grace Folsom. From moment one of their interaction, Sarah intuits that Violet is unhappy, as well as openly uncomfortable in the presence of someone as sick as she. Sarah, in a wheelchair due to an amputated leg, looks up at Violet’s twitching discomfort and guesses, “So is this community service or something? DUI?” Obviously someone so awkward can’t have chosen to be there, but that is one of the most interesting parts about Violet, played beautifully by Molly Ryman. This is a woman uncomfortable in her own skin. She drinks to loosen up. She runs from the implications of her behavior, and yet she continuously puts herself in the position of having to be intimate with people who are dying. She seems unfit for the task. It is this tension in the script, and as embodied by Ryman, that gives Things I Don’t Understand such depth. People fight themselves, people deny what it is they want, they deny who they are. Constantly.
Sarah has been placed in the hospice center by her mother, who can’t seem to deal with the impending death of her daughter and so never visits her. The interviews with Violet become something to look forward to, interaction with someone from the outside. Over the course of the film, you see a friendship start to develop. The first time Sarah refers to Violet as “Vi” is a beautiful moment, where you realize that these two strangers have connected. At first it is Sarah who looks forward to Violet’s visits. But eventually you realize that Violet needs Sarah, too. Only there can she be honest. One of the reasons for that is that Sarah, as played by Grace Folsom, is a truth-teller. She can’t help but be, she has so little time left. Violet may be able to hide from her roommates, who are so self-obsessed they barely can see her, but she can’t hide from Sarah. Perhaps this is a relief to the depressive gloomy Violet, who walks around aware of how much she has let everybody down.
Another character from whom Violet cannot hide is Parker, the bartender downstairs (he also lives in a small apartment beside the bar). He is a bit of a mysterious character, stoic like a cowboy, gentle and humorous with the winos who frequent his joint (one old guy rails that he “was in the war”, and Parker asks, “Now was that Revolutionary or Civil?”), and patient with the blatant come-ons of Violet. In a crucial moment, when she tries to drag him upstairs to her loft, saying, in one of the funniest lines of the film, “I’ve brought far worse than you up there” (how romantic!), he looks at her, he sees her, the whole mess of her, and quietly walks away. Walking away in such a moment, when a drunk woman is open and ready for him, says everything about who this guy is.
Despite his rejection of her in that moment, his actions and behavior show that he does not judge her, he does not have contempt for her. He seems more baffled than anything else, and kind of gets a kick out of her verbal dominance and awkward mannerisms. Like Sarah, he sees through the facade. He does not speak to the chilly veneer, he speaks to the warmth he senses underneath. This drives Violet insane. She wants him in her bed. NOW. The guy won’t even kiss her. He also has a constantly ringing cell phone in his back pocket and he never answers it. What is THAT about?
Alongside the growing friendship with Sarah, seen in a slowly unfolding series of scenes, are the interactions Violet has with Parker. The two sets of relationships operate on separate tracks, throughout the film, and Spaltro’s script moves us effortlessly from one to the other. It is a joy to watch these actors interact. Parker is an insomniac and Violet knows that, so sometimes, at 3 in the morning, she’ll come downstairs and knock on his door, knowing he’s up. Parker makes her tea and listens to Violet babble. He doesn’t say much. Violet scans his bookshelves, and sees Spinoza and other heavy-hitting names. This is another way that Spaltro really gets New York right. New York is a place where bouncers have Master’s degrees and bartenders read Spinoza. Everyone has the job they do to get by, and then everyone has a separate life, of dreams, ambitions, private wishes and pursuits.
A more cliched script would have had Parker the bartender be a mere repository for Violet’s fantasies, with no real life of his own. He would be there as eye-candy and romantic possibility. But Spaltro is smart. Every character we meet, every single one, has a story-arc. In the opening of the film it may seem like this is going to be a one-person show, but by the end of it you actually feel like you have gotten to know about 10 people very well. It’s a minor miracle that Spaltro was able to pull this off, because it requires a great balancing act. Violet is our center, and yet the film does not suffer in the scenes not involving her. With each moment, structurally, Violet’s world gets bigger, and bigger, letting in more and more people: Parker’s friend Felix and his wife, Darla the Australian bartender downstairs, Gabby’s activist friends, Remy’s boyfriend …
This culminates in an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner gathering at Violet’s loft, a terrific ensemble scene, with mismatched misfits celebrating this most American of holidays, with turkey and everything. Violet enlists Parker’s help to break Sarah out of the hospice for one day only so that she can attend.
There are details in the script which provide huge pay-offs, subtly and never too on-the-nose. The well-known fact of Parker’s insomnia pays off big-time in the last moment in the film, which brought me to tears. Violet is a music snob and loves telling anyone who will listen how much she “hates The Beatles”. In a moment of confession later with Sarah, Violet mentions “Hey Jude” in a different context, and our minds go back to Violet’s insistence that The Beatles suck, and it is a very moving connection. Sarah admits that she is a virgin, and tells Violet what she dreams sex should be like: “Someone looking you in the eye, moving with you and not against you.” We have seen Violet in the sack with the parade of one-night stands, she tells Sarah that she “hates most of them”, and, in a later scene, Sarah’s words end up having great reverb in a breathtaking moment of eye-to-eye contact. This is a good script. This is a script that keeps its eye on the ball, that knows where it is going, and what it is doing. These details are not there, originally, to make the characters “quirky” or “interesting” or “funny”, these details are there because we are all made up of our contexts and life stories, and we all use defense mechanisms to hide our vulnerability. Spaltro, gently, masterfully, shows those masks starting to fall. Not just Violet’s, but everyone‘s.
There is a big plot here, too: Parker’s past comes back to haunt him, the roommates face eviction, and Sarah begins to decline. But Things I Don’t Understand is smart to not let the plot run the show. By the time the big events occur, late in the game, the film has earned the right to its various cathartic moments. It comes by all of them honestly.
Molly Ryman is extraordinary in the lead role, bringing humor and sharp intelligence to a character who could have been played in an insufferably one-note snarky way. Instead, Violet is the center, the core, and it is a revelation to watch this beautiful actress slowly crack out of her chrysalis over the course of the film. Grace Folsom, as Sarah, is an intuitive and natural presence, squinting her eyes at Violet’s discomfort and speaking right into the truth of every moment. Aaron Mathias’ Parker seems, at first, like a typical handsome guy, patient and on a slow burn, with great self-control. But he’s tormented. He’s always operating with some level of sleep deprivation, which Mathias manages to suggest subtly, with his behavior. Violet’s insistence on being close to him, even though all she seems to want at first is sex, starts to crack him open too. We think he may be pushing her away because he doesn’t want to get involved. But we realize that he is running from something, too. With all of its humor and gloom, Things I Don’t Understand is a very romantic movie.
Parker looks out at the glimmering New York skyline from Brooklyn and says to Violet, “You know, I’ve been all over the world, but there’s no place like this. It still takes my breath away. I still feel like it’s not my home.”
Death hovers on the periphery of Things I Don’t Understand, sometimes surging forward to overtake all with its darkness. But the end result is a film of great warmth, hope, and humor. This is the human condition.
The darkness is there to accentuate the light, the light that every character – from Violet down to the homeless guy who frequents the bar and only has two or three lines – is searching for. Yes, there is darkness. The darkness is, at times, overwhelming. We all struggle with it. We all know we are going to die. But there is light, too. Always. Everywhere.
Trailer for Things I Don’t Understand:
Official website for Things I Don’t Understand