An indie film created for $175,000 and shot in 20 days, Things I Don’t Understand (TIDU) is one film you aren’t likely to forget, but I can’t say definitively whether that means you will love it or hate it. There is much to love and not love in this film about that age-old question of ‘what happens when you die?’
Our story revolves around Violet (Molly Ryman), a jaded grad student who has become emotionally detached from the world around her after a failed suicide attempt and a poor relationship with her father. She tries very hard to make everyone believe she is happy with being mediocre and having nearly no expectations of herself or from others. Her life consists of drinking, drugging, and “whoring around” as she so delicately puts it. As a grad student, Violet decides to write her thesis paper on ‘what happens after we die’ — a difficult topic for anyone, but especially for someone like her, who really has no faith or beliefs in either religion or humanity. She is sent to an inpatient hospice facility by her therapist (Lisa Eichhorn) in the hopes of helping her understand death, and to learn how to feel some kind of emotion. Through her journey we meet her eccentric roommates, Remy and Gabby (Hugo Dillon and Meissa Hampton), and watch as they all struggle through complicated love plots and the looming threat of being kicked out of the building they call home. Enter the cute bartender that Violet pines for, and hold on to your hats for one bumpy ride.
You can feel the heart and soul that was poured into TIDU from its writer/director/producer David Spaltro, who (according to interviews) drew much of the content from personal experiences. Spaltro manages not to alienate audiences by trying to come up with all the answers to this question, rather leaving the thinking up to us. In that aspect, it is really pretty creative. What’s unfortunate is the overall execution.
Let’s start with the characters and actors. Violet is not exactly the kind of character you are meant to fall in love with. She’s rough, blunt, crass, and ultimately self-destructive. Surprisingly, Ryman manages to kick her character up a notch by making her whiny and, quite frankly, annoying. While this works to an extent for the character, it ultimately felt forced. Violet’s love interest/nightly bartender, Parker (Aaron Mathias), has his own issues centered around a painful past love-life. After finding out the details about his past, it’s easy to be sympathetic to Parker’s general lack of emotion, but not Mathias’ lack of connection to the character. There was the occasional spark of life in Mathias’ performance, but those were few and far between. Between Ryman and Mathias’ performances, the love connection portrayed by their characters was left lacking any real feeling. It was almost comical that Parker would continue to be interested in Violet. Each exchange was extremely hard to believe. Violet’s roommate, Gabby, was more than over-the-top. I think this is due to a combination of the writing as well as the performance by Hampton — reminding me of characters I’ve seen portrayed in high school plays. On the other hand, Violet’s other roommate, Remy, was quite believable. While the character was written to be just as over-the-top as Gabby (though in vastly different ways), Dillon sold it. He was able to take a less-than-endearing character and make him relatable, funny, and most importantly, believable. The shining star in this cast was Grace Folsom who played Sara, a patient at the hospice center that makes a huge impact on Violet’s life. This is Folsom’s debut in a feature length film, and I must say, she was a delight. Another surprise performance was given by Nabil Vinas, who had a relatively small part as Joe, a nurse at the hospice center. He had only a few lines here or there, but he was believable and didn’t lay on the cheese during exchanges that could have easily been over-acted.
While the acting was hit or miss through out the cast, other problems with TIDU centered around the theme. It looked very professional for being an indie film, but it had some very obvious flaws. There were a couple of sub-plots involving minor characters that felt unnecessary, only adding to the length of the film rather than emphasizing Spaltro’s direction of the film. Editing also seemed to have been an issue; there were scenes where audio and visuals didn’t match up, as well as scene transitions that were fairly jarring.
As a reviewer, these are issues that I can’t leave unaddressed. I must say though, for making a movie for less that $200K, I applaud Spaltro for the work that he was able to accomplish. It’s refreshing to see that a filmmaker’s ideas and intrigues can be successfully expressed on a budget, instead of these multi-million dollar corporate monstrosities that usually have very little to actually say. Things I Don’t Understand doesn’t add any beliefs Spaltro may have of the afterlife onto his audience. Instead, he asks us to examine how the search for those answers can make you look at your own life and the relationships that surround you in the Here and Now. For all its faults, TIDU effectively gets your gears turning while letting you see a snippet of a unique young woman’s life.
I give Things I Don’t Understand 3 “I thought those were orchid masks…” out of 5.