Sundance 2023: Sometimes I Think About Dying Review

Fran (Daisy Ridley) leads a dismal life. She may only be thirty, but her evening routine makes my 89-year-old aunt’s weeknight trips to karaoke seem like Gatsby parties.

Fran works a monotonous office job where she’s stuck in a tiny cubicle and surrounded by the world’s blandest coworkers. Not that she’s bristling with personality. You’ve heard of the House of Gucci? Fran’s wardrobe comes from the House of Meh. It’s a drab collection of beige and gray turtlenecks and cardigans. To liven things up, the young woman spends evenings alone in her kitchen devouring microwaved dinners topped with cottage cheese. 

But Fran has a secret tactic to deal with life’s tedium. While other people waste time small-talking by the coffee machine or scrolling through their TikTok feed, she retreats to a secret place in her mind. When the world seems like too much to bear, Fran fantasizes about dying. 

The film never shows her thinking through the step-by-step process of committing suicide. Instead, we witness the aftermath: her soulless corpse spread out in a series of macabre tableaus. Fran’s painterly death fantasies are hauntingly beautiful and reflect the character’s yearning for peace of mind. 

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Fran rarely speaks, and tries her damndest to avoid interacting with the folks in her office. But things change once a new coworker named Robert (Dave Merheje) shows up on the scene. Robert doesn’t seem to take anything seriously like he’s gunning for the title of office clown. He’s trying a bit too hard to win over his new colleagues. As Robert’s big personality disrupts Fran’s routine, she’s challenged to adapt to life outside her comfort zone. 

For better and for worse, Sometimes I Think About Dying is the dictionary definition of a Sundance film. It’s an unconventional indie flick with a charming cast, catchy score, and lots of heart. I found every minute entertaining, but aspects of the film left me wanting. 

The thing that bothers me is the story’s lack of specificity. There’s no clear sense of who Fran is and what drives her compulsion to die. The story is also vague about her depressive state. Too many films do a poor job of addressing the complexities of mental illness. Most of them want to tell weighty, meaningful stories without clearly defining the protagonist’s mental health issues. These stories use mental illness as a shorthand for a troubled person who hasn’t figured life out. 

Sometimes I Think About Dying frames Fran as someone choosing to sit on life’s sidelines until an interesting guy comes her way. Her interest in Robert happens so fast it’s as though Fran’s debilitating apathy was switched off. Her relationship comes across like an inevitable story beat rather than an expression of the character’s growth. It leads one to wonder why Robert, and why now? Neither the script or Ridley’s performance make the decision clear. 

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Fran’s life still isn’t peachy once the two characters start to bond. She’s still withdrawn and lacks basic social skills. But she’s going through life in a manner that feels out of touch with what we’ve seen of the character. 

This film would go off the rails in a lesser actor’s hands, but Ridley’s engaging performance keeps it all on track. She spends most of her screen time in silence and conveys so much through subtle body language; the arch of her back, a tilt of her head. We may not know what Fran’s thinking, but we’re always in tune with the ebb and flow of her anxious energy. 

Here’s what’s key: I didn’t know who Fran was or what she desired, but Ridley’s stellar performance made me want to find out.

I understand why a filmmaker would a character like Fran such a cypher. She’s adrift in life, directionless and lacking motivation. We can’t know what the character wants because she doesn’t even understand herself. But this character is such a blank slate it makes it tough to invest in her emotional journey. So when the film builds to its emotional crescendo, the moment rings false.

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The film’s cinematography and music do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting. Dabney Morris’s intoxicating score draws you into Fran’s gloomy reality. These wistful compositions are somehow both dreary and hopeful. They reflect the character’s banal existence as little bits of hope and possibility flutter into her world like butterflies.  

DP Dustin Lane’s cinematography shows us the world through Fran’s weary eyes. He captures Fran and her coworkers in tight, cramped spaces, their features often blurry, hidden, or cropped off. These shots act as brilliant visual depictions of Fran’s crushing despair and the warped way she sees life and the people around her.

I like what Sometimes I Think About Dying has to say, even if I have issues with how it gets there. It’s a film about the struggles people endure as they seek meaning in their lives.  

There’s a telling moment early on when the office throws a retirement party for Fran’s coworker. It’s anything but glamorous. The staff stand around a drab office space feasting on pretzels and sheet cake while swapping war stories about jobs nobody wants to do. The camaraderie moves the woman to tears as Fran skulks back to her lonely cubicle. 

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This moment drives home the point that Sometimes I Think About Dying is a story about finding beauty in the mundane. The retiring coworker treated her workplace like a garden. She planted seeds of purpose and friendship and then nurtured them for years. And now she’s feasting on her harvest. 

The film shows us how if you don’t plant those seeds, you’ll never find a deep-rooted sense meaning in whatever you choose to do.  

Sometimes I Think About Dying is screening as part of Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition section.

Head here for more of our coverage from Sundance 2023.

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