“See you at the next meeting?”
Story construction becomes crucial when you only have ten minutes to move from start to finish and oftentimes a linear progression is best. I use Penelope Lawson‘s Numb as an example because the bones of its plot are good despite its unorthodox orchestration ruining its potential to resonate. Set against New York City’s Chinatown, a devastated woman seeks solace between the legs of any willing suitor that comes along. Our job is to understand her suffering as more than a punch line to her actions. So having Astrid (Rebecca Martos)—at this point simply an annoyed Indian restaurant patron enduring another customer’s small talk (Daniel Deutsch‘s Mark)—ask a stranger if he’d have sex with her is quite the out-of-left-field hook. Sadly its success is never quite matched.
We don’t know if she’s bored, trying to rile him up, or completely serious. We still don’t as the screen cuts away to the title. We do get an idea upon returning to the action with Astrid stewing in silence at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Is this her problem or is she just trolling for damaged goods willing to sleep with her a la Fight Club? The film’s air of mystery is retained even as Astrid’s pain slowly bubbles to the surface, readying us for an important reveal. And sure enough it comes courtesy of her friend/neighbor Maddie’s (Olivia Sharpe) worry. Knowing can now move this character to a place of cathartic release—a direction most would choose. But Lawson isn’t most and I applaud her for that.
The problem arises when we realize how far from conventional she’s going. Suddenly we’re pulled in and out of her timeline, our disorientation causing us to lose any empathy we had built for Astrid’s tragic soul. An encounter with Mike (Nicolas diPierro) conjures a sadness to rip things open and yet we’re transported back to that Indian restaurant. And when that’s done we’re back to her depression as though she just left Mike. My footing was gone. I had no clue where or when I was. So when an ending that should excel in its dramatic connotations arrives, I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t yet digested the sharp shifts in place. My mind said I should sympathize with Astrid’s plight but my heart wasn’t provided the time.
“That’s it? That’s how it ends?” I was incredulous because I generally crave this type of ending. But for some reason Numb didn’t work and I believe it’s a result of Lawson’s abstract construction. I’m not saying a linear progression would fix it, but it would have afforded me the breathing room to better accept this woman’s downward spiral. The beginning doesn’t scream “problem”. Neither does the AA meeting. Maybe Astrid is promiscuous because she likes sex. So when we do learn the reasons for her actions, we should remain in them to understand. Rather than providing clarity, rewinding to the start only supplies regression. So an abrupt return to that pain of dark thoughts afterwards falls flat. Lawson got me comprehending Astrid’s pain intellectually, but never emotionally.