There’s something unique about rural isolation. Streets remain almost permanently empty. Everyone knows everything about everyone. Daydreams can be your only escape. It’s in one such place that we meet socially awkward and emotionally stunted office drone Fran (Daisy Ridley) in Rachel Lambert’s hypnotic dark comedy Sometimes I Think About Dying.
Taking a cue from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Lambert repeats Fran’s routine over the course of several days to set up the humdrum rhythm of her life. We see Fran, perpetually clad in beige, walk from her apartment to her job at the port authority, where she spends her days filling out spreadsheets, filing papers into cabinets, ordering office supplies for her co-workers (played by a cadre of winsome characters actors, including Parvesh Cheena, Brittany O’Grady, and Meg Stalter, who keep Sometimes I Think About Dying firmly floating in the realm of comedy), and dreaming about increasingly surreal and melancholic ways of dying. At the end of the day she walks home, eats cottage cheese, and is in bed by 10:15pm.
When the staff welcomes a new hire – the charming Robert (Dave Merheje) – Fran’s life, at least emotionally, changes drastically. Change is a rare thing in places like this, and even the smallest alteration can have an immeasurable impact. Something as simple as a DM about cottage cheese opens Fran up to connect in a way it’s clear she hasn’t felt comfortable doing in a very long time. Slowly, Ridley’s rigid body language melts. A shy smile creeps over her face. Her eyes are no longer glazed over; instead they remain ever searching and eager for another sign of camaraderie from Robert.
Though this prospective relationship cracks open Fran’s world, Sometimes I Think About Dying is not necessarily a romance. Rather, it’s a study in the debilitating effects of social anxiety and chronic loneliness, and the healing power of being truly seen: During a goodbye party for Robert’s predecessor at work, Fran’s attempts to join in on the festivities are thwarted by an unease that leaves her frozen in a corner, as if being around people causes her actual pain. Spreadsheets and a fixed routine keep her life orderly, but hide her creative spirit, which she only seems capable of expressing through flights of fancy centered around her demise.
Fran, it seems, escapes into her gruesome dreamscapes because she does not have the tools to engage with people. Maybe she’s always been this way; maybe it’s rooted in an abusive childhood (an ignored call from her mother early on hints at this possibility). Certainly growing up on the “quiet side” of a rural town hasn’t set Fran up for success when it comes to the suffocating Petri dish that is a small office.
Her daydreams often take place in reflections of Sometimes I Think About Dying’s coastal Oregon shooting locations: a cold beach covered in driftwood, or the decaying floor of a forest. While the small communities that make up this region are linked via lonesome highways and bridges that connect them to bigger cities like Portland, residents are mostly left alone in an insular peace that can sometimes be anything but. Like the forest in her dreams, these towns are often marked by both their beauty and their decay. For Fran, this tension is at the core of her anxiety.
Ridley’s guarded, almost inexpressive exterior masks a raging fire that she keeps buried deep inside, recalling Karen Colston in Jane Campion’s Sweetie. Both films feature emotionally neglected young women who are ill-equipped to navigate the violent sensations of first love. For Fran, these feelings push her to change up routine by going out with Robert on three successive nights. On each date their connection grows deeper, yet Fran’s emotional wall persists, eventually forming a chasm between them that only Fran can close again.
Lambert keeps Sometimes I Think About Dying rooted squarely in Fran’s skewed perspective, with office gossip buzzing in the background like a white noise machine. She often films Ridley’s face in tight close-ups, catching every nuance of its movements. Much of Fran’s time is spent staring at a computer screen, and Ridley expresses more with a furrowed brow or furtive glance than she does with the film’s sparse dialogue. When Fran comes out of her shell, as when she tells Robert a silly joke or participates in a murder-mystery game, she does so with the glee of a child, her eyes shining and bright. “You’re secretly good at a lot of things, you just don’t let anyone know,” Robert tells her.
This is the key to Fran. Despite the vastness of her interior life, her anxiety – augmented by the loneliness of her remote hometown – has kept her social life small. It has made sharing any part of herself with others a painful task. Yet, as she allows others to share pieces of themselves with her, she slowly finds the language and the strength to communicate and connect as well. This may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but for Fran, it could mean the whole world.