Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Too Many Ingredients

Things I Don't Understand, the new film from writer-director David Spaltro is like one of those entrées served a a chic eatery with too many ingredients. The dish is certainly interesting and there are some unique flavors, but you wish the chef would have simplified things, as it most surely would have been much more satisfying.

This is not to say that Things isn't an interesting and watchable film; any project with as many misfits as there are in this modern urban tale is worth your while. But the film is all over the place, rarely finding a center, as there are just too many subplots.

This is the second film for Spaltro, whose initial work Around, was quite enjoyable (read my review here.) That work, largely an autobiographical opus about a young man getting over his anxieties in his move to the big city of New York and making his way through film school, was endearing and quite honest. Now with Things, Spaltro has expanded his vision and his storytelling, giving us a group of characters that have problems everywhere they turn, be it their self-identity, getting a job, making enough money to pay the rent as well as getting laid. Did I mention they have problems?

The main character, Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman) is writing a thesis about what it feels like to die; she interviews people that have had near-death experiences. One day she meets a very young woman named Sara (Grace Folsom) who has bone cancer as well as a lung condition that combined give her only months, perhaps weeks to live. Violet is a bit insecure when first meeting Sara and more than just a bit unsure of what to say to her. Sara does her best to make Violet feel at ease, but it takes time for Violet to make sense of this situation.

Violet lives with two roommates, one male, Remy (Hugo Dillon) and one female, Gabby (Meissa Hampton); he's a wannabe musician who refuses to get a real job, while she's an actress trying to get her new play produced. Together the three struggle to make enough money to keep the place they're living in, which just happens to be conveniently located above a bar, tended by Parker (Aaron Mathias), whom Violet wants to sleep with in the worst way.

This jumble of characters and story lines make for some interesting moments, but much of this is formulaic (Gabby's play is ridiculously New Age, Parker's got a secret he doesn't want to tell Violet, etc, etc.). It's when Spaltro deals with the relationship between Violet and Sara that is when this film really grabs our attention; it does that with sharp dialogue, fine acting and uncomplicated direction.

At one point, Violet lays down with Sara in her bed at the hospice at which she is a patient. Violet has become less anxious with her visits to Sara, as she realizes that this terminally ill patient has a better grasp on life's mysteries than most of her friends. Still Sara wonders why she has to be a victim and why she has to die so young. It's a beautifully written scene and it's the best in the film, no doubt as it's about the most heartfelt.

If the film had dealt with more honest emotions such as this, Things I Don't Understand could have really been a treasure. It's just not that insightful and as I tired of the mess these characters have to deal with, I grew a bit weary of the film; for me, this was 15-20 minutes too long.

It really is a shame I didn't care for this film as much as I thought I would, as I did enjoy Around. In some ways, Things displays a film making maturity for Spaltro, as a good portion of his writing is nicely done, while his direction is subtly handled. He doesn't go for weird camera angles or any visual tricks, settling for simple two shots and closeups to let the actors tell the story. He's quite good directing his performers and a few of them deserve special mention. I like the energy of Dillon, who brings a nice sense of humor to what could have been a stereotypical "loser" role. Also, I admire the performance of Ryman, who also starred in Around; she has a natural quality to her and is believable at every moment. I think Spaltro has discovered someone who could become a star, as audiences identify with her frankness on screen as well as her "girl next door" good looks. My one criticism of her is that she tends to roll her eyes whenever she delivers an ironic line; once is enough, but three or four times is a bit much. Still, she has to carry the film and is up to the task.

My favorite perfomance here is by Folsom, who makes for a nice counterpoint to Ryman. She has an endearing charm about her and it's hard not to root for her character. She delivers her self-effacing lines with great humor and ease and it's in her scenes that we really care about the overall message of this film.

So a mixed review for me for Things I Don't Understand, as this is slightly disappointing film, despite some funny and touching moments. Here's hoping that for his next film, Spaltro will keep combine his ingredients with a bit more simplicity.

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