Whomst among us has not dreamed of slowly decomposing in a forest rather than talking to co-workers? This is the question at the heart of Rachel Lambert’s Sometimes I Think About Dying, a normcore drama that might as well be the dictionary definition of “Sundance movie”. Is there a famous actor giving an every-person performance? Check. Is the color palette dominated by neutrals? Yep. Is it set in a mid-sized American city? You betcha. Does a character actor show up to deliver a devastating monologue at the end? You know it. Dying is a celluloid cliché of the kind of movie Sundance is famous for platforming, a cubicle culture film lacking the mean streak of Office Space or the whimsy of Lars and the Real Girl.
Daisy Ridley, the famous actor giving an every-person performance, stars as Fran, an introverted office worker in a cubicle farm in coastal Oregon. That Dying works at all is largely down to Ridley, a likeable screen presence even when playing a deeply introverted character who barely speaks. Fran is so withdrawn she barely makes eye contact with her co-workers, lingering in doorways and sliding past other people’s banal conversations barely disturbing the surface of other people’s lives. She daydreams of hanging from the crane outside her office window, and pictures herself rotting on the forest floor, and honestly, this is the best part of the film and Dying does little of interest with it. Shots of Fran imagining beetles crawling over her do little more than emphasize her macabre mental state, which is, at the same time, not so dire as to make the audience worry that Fran is going to do something drastic.
There is no question, though, that Fran is depressed. To its credit, Dying is a sensitive portrait of introversion for what it really is: not the delicious feeling of cancelling plans or a social media synonym for “quirky”, but a real state of having low social energy for groups. Fran attempts to mingle with her co-workers, but can never manage to complete an interaction, usually slipping away as soon as attention is diverted. She is so withdrawn, she doesn’t even notice her phone ringing. Her life is a series of small, unnoticed routines, and to Dying’s credit, there is no sense that there is anything wrong with being introverted, but Fran has become so locked in her shell she’s tipping into loneliness and depression. When a new employee, Robert (Dave Merheje), joins her office and takes an interest, Fran has an opportunity to form a connection outside herself.
There’s nothing wrong with a quiet, character-driven drama, but Dying treads close enough to becoming something more interesting that its small scale becomes frustrating. There are a couple moments involving Fran’s co-workers that suggest who a person is in the office is not representative of their whole life—which is obvious, but this is a film with so little going on, even an obvious point is still a point—but the film, which boasts a trio of screenwriters, Kevin Armento (whose play, Killers, is a loose inspiration for the film), Katy Wright-Mead, and Stefanie Abel Horowitz (who directed a short film of the same name upon which the feature is based), never connects these façade reveals with Fran’s own sense of isolation.
Dying reminds me of Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson, which is also centered on the mundanity of life and an introverted protagonist with a rich inner life. But what Paterson has that Dying lacks is a sense of purpose in that mundanity. As a short film, Dying is acute, but stretched to feature length, it starts strong only to drag through the middle, making the same point over and over again. I appreciate no one is trying to “fix” Fran, but once we have grasped her whole deal, there is little left to compel in the film. Marcia DeBonis shows up at the end to deliver a solid monologue about the vagaries of life, and it is the shot in the arm Dying badly needs by that point. Ridley is, at least, watchable throughout, but other films have done what Dying is doing to greater effect, like Paterson, or even the short version of Dying, which at least offers greater interiority than the feature. This isn’t a film that needs to be twee or cute about Fran’s morbid imaginings, but it is a film that cries out for a little more imagination. It’s hardly the first film to notice that cubicle farms are soul-crushing places to work, and life is too precarious to spend waiting to enjoy it later. The least Dying could do is offer more than a dream of decomposition.