Things I Don’t Understand (2011)

May 2nd, 2012

Hugo Dillon and Molly Ryman in "Things I Don't Understand"

Someday, everyone you know won’t exist. Tomorrow doesn’t matter until it’s today. No one makes it through life unscathed, in one way or another.

These are just a few of the lessons found in “Things I Don’t Understand,” a small indie rumination with big pretensions. In his follow up to his debut feature “…Around” (2008), director David Spaltro gets ambitious and tackles life’s essential questions: what happens when we die? why are we here? what does it mean to love? how can we accept death?

Violet is an aloof grad student hoping to discern life’s indiscernible mysteries through her study of death and beyond. Along the way she’s befriended, challenged and enlightened by a terminally ill woman and a cagey bartender, and faces the realities of adult life with her boisterous artist roommates.

As in his debut “…Around,” Spaltro again focuses on the volatile, transient period of uncertainty so commonly associated with young adulthood. These characters are on their own, several years removed from mom’s basement, yet they have neither the wisdom nor the perspective that comes with age. They’ve just begun the journey of self-discovery and existential examination that will last the rest of their lives.

Aaron Mathias and Grace Folsom, the mysterious bartender and terminally ill patient, respectively, anchor a strong supporting cast, which adds flavor and dynamics to Violet’s quest. Molly Ryman, who also starred in “…Around,” has the face of a star. Her portrayal of the intrepid, sporadically abrasive protagonist holds the entire enterprise together. She is ready for the big time.

The film, though visibly low-budget, is nevertheless technically accomplished. Small nitpicks such as a too-wide shot in the therapy sessions, the occasional acting misstep, and a dull, homogenous lighting scheme aren’t enough to overshadow its refreshing earnestness and relatively low-key approach to decidedly high-key themes.

Though he occasionally overreaches, or makes too obvious an observation, Spaltro generally handles the weighty material deftly. “Things I don’t Understand” smartly avoids the preachiness plague, and serves as the audience’s companion rather than its teacher. Too often, burgeoning writer/directors pour the bulk of their energy into the craft of filmmaking, getting bogged down in blocking, framing, lighting, etc., and neglect the emotional side of storytelling. Spaltro has sidestepped this problem and seems poised to have a big impact on indie film in the coming years.

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