REVIEW: Things I Don’t Understand [2012]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 109 minutes | Release Date: January 31st, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Embrace The Fall
Director(s): David Spaltro
Writer(s): David Spaltro

“Tomorrow doesn’t exist until it’s today”

Faith is defined as believing without seeing. We give so much impetus to its use on the afterlife that it’s easy to forget the need for such fidelity in ourselves. The question of what happens when we die is one people love to debate because we all hold our views tight enough stop another’s opinion from squeezing through. Atheists, spiritualists, and the religious all have their idea of emptiness or awakening and each becomes lost in their quest without first enjoying the now. Nobody knows for sure—near-death experienced, mouthpiece of God, or pessimistic nihilist—yet so few have the courage to admit as much. Our blind faith or lack thereof will always be more important than who we see in the mirror begging for the chance to escape. Until we acknowledge answers don’t exist, we’ll never be free to believe in our capacity to live regardless.

As the main theme of David Spaltro‘s Things I Don’t Understand, discovering answers to existential concepts is less important than comprehending the physical beings surrounding us. For it’s lead—the ever cynical, self-destructive, and armored Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman)—the search to find the white light of the beyond drives her to the edge. So lost after personal tragedy reveals a family’s inability to cope together, a fleeting fascination becomes the windmill to her Don Quixote as she attempts to take her own life in order to inch closer to the truth. But once her eyes open to a bright new day, only the lies, deceit, and arrogance of the weak-minded remain. Finding pain and sorrow in the wake of her brush with mortality, the droves of ‘survivors’ she interviews for her thesis mock with the purity of hope they’ve clung to after experience something more than blackness.

Like any confused soul desperate to have what she cannot, the idea of living replaces the act itself and sex, drugs, and rock and roll become a salvation from ambivalence. It’s amazing to think about all the time and money spent seeing psychiatrists and taking medications for an ailment so intrinsically bonded to one’s own ability to live unencumbered—for many of us the mere idea of freedom is foreign and impossible. We grow into what we believe is adulthood until we find another chapter of doing, failing, learning, and maybe succeeding before the process repeats again. We have doubts, take our punches, and refuse to ask for help or even accept it when given uninvited. Parents become the enemy if only because we know they love us and friends render themselves mirrors to either substantiate our depression or exacerbate it when they dare to find real joy.

Violet’s journey is like our own—arduous and full of infinite possibilities, good and bad. She can’t allow herself to see how her suicide attempt looks to the outside nor accept the severity once the ‘experiment for understanding’ excuse wears itself inevitably thin. We often can’t cherish the exacting nature of mortality for giving us a reason to live, love, and prosper until seeing its end first-hand. To accept the preciousness of existence we must comprehend what it means to lose everything. And while Spaltro goes a bit overboard giving his heroine trials and tribulations, you cannot fault his metaphorical reasoning for pushing her further and further in order to coax her into fighting back. We surround ourselves with friends as pawns, chase men and women for conquest rather than who they are, and pity the less fortunate by appropriating their tragedy in order to ignore faith and hope altogether.

But no matter how hard Violet tries to excommunicate from humanity, it refuses to part ways. Remy (Hugo Dillon) transforms from gay roommate used to anger parents with lies of lustful passion to the one person she can count on; Gabby (Meissa Hampton) turns compassionate soul yearning to touch lives after beginning a self-important whining attention-whore; and her psychiatrist Dr. Blankenship (Lisa Eichhorn) finds a chink in the armor to exploit and hopefully let Violet see before sealing it away forever. A man—Parker (Aaron Mathias)—for once doesn’t see her as a sexual toy to let be thrown away the next morning and a young girl dying of cancer—Sara Lowe (Grace Folsom)—shows a selflessness worth fighting for that contradicts friends languishing on problems far removed death’s clutches. It only takes an instant to see someone fresh and discover the potential of having purpose as a result.

This thinly veiled philosophizing of existentialism and spirituality rarely occurs outside the independent arena since many audiences fear the concepts and conversations born when wanting movies to be mere escape. Spaltro has ambitiously embraced the audience’s wanting more by putting weighty theories into the mouths of twenty-somethings searching for answers. At times over-written to the point of claustrophobia with quick cuts to other woeful characters occurring each time a breath needs to be taken, the excess does bring great quieter, human vignettes too. While I love the headier dialogue—especially Folsom’s scene-stealing Sara with quotes along the lines of, “There has to be a God because someone must be held accountable for what’s happened to me”—moments like Mike Britt‘s Big Felix feigning a bouncer’s holier-than-thou façade to scare a kid wanting alcohol delight in their simplicity.

The films’ greatest strength and weakness is Spaltro’s wealth of ideas and wonderfully constructed characters. Listening to stories like former E.M.T. Joe (Nabil Vinas) cementing his belief in God and watching Folsom go from zero to sixty and back emotionally is amazingly resonate. However, I found myself so invested in the periphery—even a contrived bit of antagonistic bliss between the great and often pushed aside Dillon and Hampton—that my interest in Violet’s catharsis waned. My qualms are due to two arcs needing longevity while others come and go as Ryman shows moments of brilliance to temper her role’s more monotonous than preferred tone and Mathias’ Angel meets Alcide stoicism wears thin besides a glimpse of melting Violet’s way. A heartfelt montage following an overly goofy final sequence helps bring it full circle, though, and we’re able to understand life is worth letting death remain unknown.

[1] Violet chats up Parker (Aaron Mathias). Photo by AnneMarie Howard – © 2011
[2] Sara (Grace Folsom) and Violet (Molly Ryman). Photo by AnneMarie Howard – © 2011
[3] Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman). Photo by AnneMarie Howard – © 2011

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