Written and directed by independent filmmaker David Spaltro, Things I Don’t Understand is a thought-provoking drama of young people on the edge, seeking desperately to grab a foothold. Like other recent films, it asks the hard questions: Who am I, why am I here, what is the meaning of life, and what happens when we die? The film is clearly a heartfelt project, a subject that the director feels deeply about and has assembled a fine ensemble cast to support him. Molly Ryman is Violet Kubelick, a brilliant, but emotionally troubled young graduate school student in New York, who is writing her doctoral thesis on the “big” subject of life after death, a subject she has had a personal interest in since her sister died at an early age.
Self-absorbed, angry, and lacking in self control, Violet, who often has a half smile on her face that masks her inner turmoil, releases her pent-up emotions by engaging in non-fulfilling sex, drugs and alcohol. Her attempted suicide, which she disingenuously calls an experiment to research a near-death experience, only serves to reinforce an urgent need for professional counseling. The therapy in this case is offered by Dr. Blankenship (Lisa Eichhorn), though it is not clear how Violet’s low-paying job at a bookstore enables her to pay for the visits. In any event, Dr. Blankenship challenges her to end her “life is not fair” act and begin to take the first steps towards self-acceptance.
The therapist also suggests that she reach out to others and refers her to a hospice for dying patients where she can continue her research. This leads to an interview with Sara (Grace Folsom), a patient dying of an incurable cancer. Though weakened from her illness, Sara is self-reflective and open to talking about her life. Often tending toward self-pity, however, she asks “why me?” and reinforces her victimization by asserting that if there is a God, he will have to “answer” for her suffering. Though neither can truly see a spiritual component to their existence, their relationship is mutually supportive, and they establish a partnership that is much more than the connection between a detached researcher and her subject. As a result, both grow in their ability to reach out to others and communicate their feelings.
In one of several subplots, Violet shares an apartment with two roommates who are just as fragile as she is: Remy (Hugo Dillon), a gay musician and Gabby (Meissa Hampton), a “performance artist,” but focuses her main interest on Parker (Aaron Mathias), an inscrutable bartender who has separated from his wife but still wears a wedding ring. It is soon revealed that the building in which they are living is about to be sold and, unless they can raise $20,000 to buy it themselves, they will all have to move out. How her relationship with Parker plays out becomes the key towards Violet’s growing maturity and acknowledgment of things greater than herself.
Kudos must be given all around to those involved in Things I Don’t Understand, especially to Ryman and Folsom for their superior performances and to David Spaltro who once again establishes himself as one of the most promising of the younger directors. In the end, it becomes clear to Violet that the key towards discovering meaning in life is to accept who you are and to understand that “knowing is much different than believing.” As Werner Erhard put it, “If you experience it, it’s the truth. The same thing believed is a lie.”