Things I Don't Understand, the sophomore feature made by writer-director David Spaltro, is probably not the most innovative or original entry among its peers; but that's not to say that it's a cookie-cutter quirky dramedy, as it briefly appears that it might be in the opening stages. Herein, we meet Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman), a graduate student conducting a singularly morbid study of near-death experience; coming off of her own ambiguous failed suicide (she claims it was a staged experiment), this is not necessarily the healthiest course of action for her to pursue, which is why she's presently in therapy, under the care of a certain Dr. Anne Blankenship (Lisa Eichhorn). In the meantime, Violet, her gay roommate Remy (Hugo Dillon), and their new third, a fluttery radical green activist named Gabby (Meissa Hampton) are contentedly going about their business living in a nice-sized but ramshackle loft above a bar.
The three complicating incidents: Violet forms an unusually strong bond to one of her research subjects, a young cancer patient named Sara (Grace Folsom); she starts crushing on the downstairs bartender, Parker (Aaron Mathias); and the bucolic world of the loft is threatened by a real estate development. These three things allow Spaltro to explore the life of young urbanites from three equidistant angles: the philosophical (Violet's age-inappropriate obsession with death), the interpersonal (Violet's burgeoning love affair is matched by her roommate's individual goings and comings with lovers and other acquaintances), and the sociological (the economic world of unemployable young creative class types). Spaltro's screenplay doesn't delve into all of these topics with equal success (the Violet-Parker story in particular skirts rather near to cliché), but the mere fact that the film has its eyes open about the pragmatic details of life among the under-moneyed classes, without turning into a full-on message picture, is enough to put it ahead of the curve.
The generally intelligent script is matched with unusually polished cinematography for a low-budget film, courtesy of Gus Sacks; with one eye on ethereal atmosphere and the other on stripped-down realism, the movie pivots constantly from sleekness to grit and back smoothly. It's not the only sign of exceptionally professional filmmaking, though it is fair to say that nothing else here is so consistent: in particular, the film suffers from editing that's a bit more hectic than it needs to be, and a sound mix that's all over the place, with some characters virtually unintelligible - Remy is singularly horrible example, made worse because of Dillon's thick accent - and music that veers from too loud to barely audible with no reason (this could easily have been a result of the copy I was watching; either way, it's distracting).
Sadly, the acting isn't quite at the level of the craftsmanship and writing: there is a persistent lack of modulation demonstrated by nearly all of the actors (though Eichhorn is largely faultless throughout): a little bit too much mugging in some scenes followed up by slack, oddly-stressed line readings in the next. I don't think I could go so far as to call any of them bad, but there's a certain strained "we are acting! in a MOVIE!" quality that never quite shakes itself off, and it's hard to fully engage with the characters as a result.
This is not a minor problem, but it's also not uncommon in the low-budget world we're dealing with; and the sophisticated visual language is more than enough to leave Things I Don't Understand comfortably in the realm of above-average indie filmmaking. Not a slam-dunk masterpiece, but better than just a calling card, and a perfectly satisfying treatment of themes that don't get nearly as much air as the more common "I want to play acoustic guitar and have sex" tropes that dominate the urban 20something indie scene.
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The Big Something is the first feature to come out of Tempe, Arizona filmmaking concern Running Wild. This has the merit, first, of definitively answering the question, "Wait, they make movies in Arizona?", and proving that regional cinema not located in any of the expected urban centers is alive and well. It also explains and to some degree excuses the film's resolutely and at times aggressively frivolous tone: if it feels, from time to time, like the movie is the result of a bunch of friends hanging out and making a movie while they hang out, that's not exactly the opposite of what it is.
I will confess that it took me a while to warm up to The Big Something's shaggy tone, and particularly the lead performance of Michael Coleman; whether this is because it genuinely takes time for the character, actor, and scenario to gel, or if it's simply a matter of getting used to Coleman's sped-up energy, I am not entirely sure. Either way, The Big Something ends better than it begins, shedding the most cloying of its quirky notions as it goes along and coalescing as a light comedy-mystery after some rocky exposition of the "I want to have a stilted conversation about things we both know, and later I want to repeat it just to make sure the audience is 100% on board" variety.
Coleman plays Lewis, a homeless employee who works at a vintage record store and sleeps there by the grace of its kindly owner Marcus (Steve Fajardo). When Marcus shows up dead of an apparent suicide, Lewis is the only person to suspect foul play, which leads him to play amateur sleuth, with the intensely reluctant aid of his new boss, the hard-drinking, easily-angered April (Mina Mirkhah). The journey he makes to find the truth and secure his place in the easygoing, freeloader-friendly world of ironic nostalgia takes him through a cross-section of comic exaggerations, resulting in a film that is half parody of hipsters (a black market fixie operation is a particular highlight) and half tribute to their tenacity.
Mostly, though, it's a hang-out picture, the kind whose chief appeal is that it makes the protagonist somebody that we enjoy visiting with for a period of time - a slightly overlong 101 minutes, to be exact - without specifically needing to know exactly where his journey takes him, or why. Coleman's Lewis certainly fits the bill as a charmingly scabby indie hero, all gangly limbs on a tiny frame, and a slightly befuddled reaction to most everything that happens to him. It takes a while, as I said, to figure out the film's rhythm, which is unrelentingly slight; but getting there is worth the patience it takes.
As a piece of filmmaking, it's unmistakably a low-budget affair: the lighting isn't terribly even, for a start, with interiors that are a bit too dark and exteriors that are a bit too blown-out. But the worst that can be said about it, for the most part, is that it is unexceptionally competent. I am not entirely onboard with all of director & co-writer Travis Mills's conceits; the use of silent intertitles and old-fashioned irises in and out of some scenes both strike me as a contrivance that isn't used with near enough consistency to have the effect it's meant to (which, if I would guess, is meant to tie the loosey-goosey detective story into the tradition of '30s pulps, and reference the characters' love of retro aesthetics), though the ancient blues and jazz soundtrack, while coming from the same general place, is far more effect both in conception and execution.
It would be possible to complain about this or that - the scruffy audio, the unchallenging shot vocabulary, and especially the acting, which veers from moderately unsteady to perfectly decent, with virtually no genuinely bad moments but also no standouts - but it would be, to a certain degree, missing the point. The Big Something transparently has no pretensions towards depth; it is a lark meant to demonstrate "we can do this" rather than redefine the medium. At that task, it succeeds; I do hope that Running Wild finds a little bit more ambition at some point, but for now, engaging and genial character comedies are nothing to sniff at.