David Spaltro is a talented up and coming filmmaker who has written and directed two independent features in just four years. His first, 2008’s …Around, was a semi-autobiographical drama centering on a college film student who can’t afford tuition or housing and ends up paying for school with credit cards and living in Penn Station. It’s an accomplished first film that manages to blend tragedy and humor while being entertaining and thought provoking. Spaltro traveled the world promoting …Around at film festivals and you can view it through Amazon Instant Video (here is the link). I recommend checking it out.
The filmmaker’s follow-up is the current, Things I Don’t Understand, a movie that takes on the subject of death. Violet (Molly Ryman, who also starred in …Around) is a grad student writing a thesis on the life after death experience. After countless interviews with people who have died and come back to tell about it, Violet decides that she wants first hand knowledge of the white light and getting sucked back into the real world. She attempts suicide by slitting her wrists. Needless to say Violet has some issues. But who doesn’t in this fucked up world? That appears to be one of the main points Spaltro tries to get across. In a therapy group, Violet meets Remy (Hugo Dillon) a trust fund musician whose accidental drug overdose was misinterpreted as a plea for help. These two misfits have similar tastes in humor and music and their situation brings them closer together. Violet moves in with Remy, but it’s purely platonic as Remy is gay. Together they live with Gabby (Meissa Hampton), an artist/playwright, in Remy’s expensive loft that his parents pay for.
As a part of her suicide recovery, Violet’s estranged father also sends her to see a therapist, Dr. Blankenship (Lisa Eichhorn). At the doctor’s office, Violet vents her anger about life, death and family. Blankenship, in an attempt to show Violet how precious life can be, sends her to a hospice where she meets Sara (Grace Folsom), a young cancer victim whose time is running out. In a short time, Violet grows close to Sara, leading her to slowly break down the sarcastic, bitter facade she hides behind.
Violet is an intriguing character. She’s self destructive, uses promiscuity as her only way to connect with people, and is pissed off at the world in general over the hardships she’s endured. Each obstacle she faces is met with a flip of the hair and a “Well, what the fuck else is new?” kind of attitude, whether it’s rejection from the hot bartender she pines for or her impending eviction from Remy’s loft after his parents cut him off. The death of Sara profoundly affects Violet, finally giving her the perspective on death she’s been missing in all of her interviews. Spaltro put a great deal of care into defining this character, shaping the movie around her, and in Ryman, he’s found a talented actress to bring the role to life.
As a whole, Things I Don’t Understand is a good movie, certainly more assured than the director’s debut film. The cinematography is beautiful (it was shot on a Red camera), the editing is tastefully done, and the script is full of big ideas. Unfortunately, there are some flaws in Things I Don’t Understand, flaws that limit the film from reaching its full potential.
First of all, some of the acting hinders the movie. Several performances are a little too theatrical and do a disservice to Spaltro’s words. These wooden performances also distract from Ryman’s brave performance and make her appear a little flat. Additionally, so many lines come across as so PURPOSEFUL, rather than flowing out of the actor’s mouths naturally. When someone decides to say something profound, it’s like a flashing red light begins blinking and it takes you out of the movie. All of the performers are guilty of this, save for Folsom. This talented young actress really delivers a more organic performance, one that makes me look forward to any future films or television work she does. Elsewhere, I wish that Spaltro would have excised the cutesie scenes between Remy and Gabby, scenes that had nothing to do with the overall arc of the movie. It felt as if these moments were included as a way to lighten up the movie. The director didn’t need to do this, as Violet and her journey are interesting and funny enough that the Remy and Gabby scenes felt like filler.
It bums me out to write anything critical of Spaltro’s film. He has a worthwhile point of view and plenty of talent. It would be great to see his movies shown in places other than film festivals and computer screens. The man is so motivated and full of energy, I have no doubt that his next film will be much stronger. I should say that other critics have found Things I Don’t Understand more enjoyable than I did. Perhaps because I’ve been mourning the loss of a loved one my frame of mind isn’t in the right place. I leave it up to you to decide for yourself and tell me if I’m wrong.
To find out when Things I Don’t Understand is playing near you, check out the film’s Facebook page for updates.