In Rachel Lambert’s dreamlike indie “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” our heroine’s life is on mute: visually, sonically and emotionally. An office worker in a coastal Oregon town, Fran (Daisy Ridley) is the silent center of this story. She quietly moves through her workday in the drab offices of a local port authority, goes home, microwaves a meal and eats it standing alone in her dim kitchen. Her favorite food is cottage cheese.
But inside her mind, surreal and vivid images intrude on her thoughts — her body hanging like a rag doll from the hook of a crane, lying on a forest floor covered in insects, twisted among driftwood on a beach. She does exactly what the film’s title promises, a kind of mental escape for her soul.
The film opens with a series of slightly strange yet quotidian images that place us within the setting: a bunch of rotting fruit collecting in a storm drain, a deer walking down a set of outdoor stairs. The film was shot in the small town of Astoria, Ore., which has its own rich film history (“The Goonies,” “Kindergarten Cop,” many other shoots) and a distinct sense of place and culture.
This opening also sets the unique tone that Lambert creates in this odd yet poignant film. Based on the play “Killers” by Kevin Armento, “Sometimes I Think About Dying” is but a snapshot of a mental-health drama, wrapped up in a more traditional love story that sparks rumination on the challenges of connecting with others.
Lambert juxtaposes images and sound to craft this strange brew of warring emotional tones. The opening sequence is set to a swooning, somewhat retro score by Dabney Morris, the titles rendered in a swooping pink cursive font. At work, Fran’s quietude exists against the mundane chatter of her co-workers. Comedian Megan Stalter (“Hacks”) plays the office‘s manager, Isobel, and the movie weaponizes Stalter’s preternatural ability to spew a steady stream of absurd workplace inanities. Because Ridley’s performance is required to be so quiet and still, Lambert smartly surrounds her with a strong ensemble largely made up of comedic actors.
Stand-up comedian and “Ramy” actor Dave Merheje co-stars as Robert, a new co-worker who shakes up Fran’s routine. He’s friendly, extroverted and relaxed; he takes an interest in Fran and invites her to a movie. The two begin a sort of tentative getting-to-know-you — it’s not quite dating but it’s not just friends either. In fact, he starts to pop in on her intrusive death fantasies.
Merheje is a somewhat unlikely but utterly charming romantic lead. His warmth offsets Ridley’s take on Fran’s awkward guardedness, and Robert’s persistence helps to crack her open — an uncomfortable but ultimately necessary process.
The Pacific Northwest‘s chill permeates every frame of “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” from the setting to the tone, and while it’s not a traditionally heartwarming film, there’s a sweetness to its soft center. There’s the way that Fran and Robert fight to find connection, and also in the way that the people around Fran reveal themselves to her. “It’s hard to be a person,” sighs Carol (Marcia DeBonis), Fran’s retired co-worker. In this simple story crafted with care and skill, there’s undeniable depth to such statements.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.