Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Content warning: Discussion of suicide and depression

The Michigan Daily loves to watch and talk about films at the cutting edge of storytelling and there is no place better to do so than the Sundance Film Festival. After a two-year in-person hiatus, writers and editors for the Film Beat have trudged through the snow on planes, trains and automobiles to arrive at Park City, Utah. Our coverage will include the premiers of dramas, romances, documentaries and everything in between. Welcome to our discussion on films made with Oscar winners and first-time filmmakers alike.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” is a simple film about a woman named Fran (Daisy Ridley, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) who sometimes contemplates suicide and starts a relationship with her new coworker Robert (Dave Merheje, “Ramy”). It might be one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.

When performers are praised for their acting, it’s often for the loud and dramatic moments, where characters are screaming over top of each other. Rarely are softer, quieter performances praised; Ridley breaks that trend with her performance. She says perhaps five lines for the entire first half of the film and likely clocks in around 50 for the entire film. Ridley builds a character not from her vocal cords but instead from the slight twitching of her cheeks and the fidgeting of her hands. When she does speak, her emotions and thoughts are portrayed so clearly from her body language that you can almost predict what she is going to say. With this performance, Ridley stands out among this generation’s actors.

The extended cast, all of whom aren’t big-name performers, bring as much nuance and emotion to their acting as Ridley. Many of the side characters are only given a couple of minutes of screen time but feel fully fleshed out. Fran’s old coworker Carol (Marcia DeBonis, “Uncut Gems”), whose recent retirement opened a role for Robert, is absent for most of the film, having supposedly gone on a cruise with her husband. Near the film’s end, she returns for a short conversation with Fran in a donut shop, where she reveals her husband had a stroke and that she doesn’t know what to do with her retirement now. The audience barely knows who this woman is, but because Debonis’s performance is so believable — the small wavers and pauses in her speech feel natural and customized to the character — it’s impossible for their eyes not to tear up.

The film opens not to dialogue or background noise, but to the score, which immediately establishes the film’s intentions and themes. The score is delicate and dreamlike, evoking the sound of distant songbirds; at the same time, it is sad and haunting, as if there is a beast lingering in the shadows, stalking those songbirds. The music supports Ridley’s performance, her small mannerisms aligning perfectly with little twinkles and shifts in the score, further emphasizing the emotions at play.

On top of the performances and score, the cinematography adds another layer of nuance, managing to make a dreary coastal village feel alive. A pale color palette brings out the banality of the town while static shots of moving objects show that life still goes on. The 4:3 aspect ratio gives a claustrophobic and old-fashioned atmosphere, but the imagery and sets feel distinctly modern. This contrast contributes to the film feeling as if it could be taking place at any point in the past or future 50 years — it is timeless.

In “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” a simple awkward peck on the cheek becomes a touching moment and a soft hug brings tears to your eyes. The emotions the film evokes from the audience go beyond what can be accomplished with good acting or music. The film’s writing is completely confident in itself, comfortable to let the themes of awkwardness, depression and subsequent isolation from society marinate throughout its runtime. The pacing is deliberate and every character’s action occurs just at the right time. When Fran finally does start to talk and interact with the outside world, it doesn’t feel rushed or forced; it’s a natural progression of the movie’s story. 

The film walks a fine line between hopelessness and optimism; it would be easy for a lesser film to get lost in Fran’s apathy. But this film is happy, funny and deeply romantic. It is packed with jokes contrasted with somber moments, reminding the audience that life isn’t black and white; you can laugh even when unhappy. Robert spends about a minute complaining about people who don’t use umbrellas, something that sounds boring until Fran quietly and calmly responds that she herself doesn’t use an umbrella. If you had told me before I watched the film that this scene would make a packed theater laugh, I wouldn’t have believed you. But it did. The audience doesn’t laugh because the scene is cringe-inducing or evokes the painful awkwardness of Michael Scott. They laugh because they know Fran is being genuine and continuing the mundane small talk that Robert started. This authenticity is the foundation of the film’s comedy, making it delightful instead of bleak.

The film dives headfirst into Fran’s internal pain, repeatedly showing her contemplating death, even relishing the idea of dying, only to pull itself out and show that it’s possible to escape depression. It tells the audience that it is okay to be hurt inside and want moments of isolation, but that it’s also necessary to be vulnerable. Fran is not “fixed” when the credits roll; her relationship with Robert has not magically cured her. Robert himself still has problems with oversharing and difficulty cultivating long-lasting relationships, but they are both working on getting better. Melancholy no longer swallows Fran whole; Richard is no longer incapable of letting an awkward silence sit. 

Not much actually happens in “Sometimes I Think About Dying.” A depressed woman goes to work, meets a new coworker and goes on a couple of dates with him. It’s slow, careful and ordinary. But that’s why it works so well. Every scene is something that could happen to the viewer. The weirdly over-enthusiastic boss (Megan Statler, “Hacks”), the surprise run-in with a coworker, the disagreement over whether a film was good or bad — all of these moments in the film have probably happened to you. Even though Fran is in the depths of a depression that few will find completely relatable, the commonplace events of her life make empathizing with her easier than breathing.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” is so much more than a film about a depressed, quirky woman. It is about not believing in yourself, about hating yourself so much that you believe death is the only escape. But then it reminds you that things can get better.

Film Beat Editor Zach Loveall can be reached at zloveall@umich.edu.