Sometimes I Think About Dying, Rachel Lambert
Photo: Vertigo Releasing

‘Sometimes I Think About Dying’ Keeps the Popcorn in the Bucket

Rachel Lambert’s sensitive and observant comedy drama Sometimes I Think About Dying isn’t a film that will turn popcorn into projectiles.

Sometimes I Think About Dying
Rachel Lambert
19 April 2024 (UK)

“You get to watch; you get to look for something and then try and understand it,” says Robert (Dave Merheje), explaining why he loves movies to Fran (Daisy Ridley), his co-worker and date in Rachel Lambert’s sensitive and observant romantic comedy-drama, Sometimes I Think About Dying. When Fran asks if he always finds something, he says, “If it’s any good, and sometimes when it’s bad, you throw popcorn at it.”

Written by Kevin Armento, Stefanie Abel Horowitz, and Katy Wright-Mead, and based on Armento’s 2013 play Killers and Horowitz’s 2019 short film of the same name, which she directed, Sometimes I Think About Dying isn’t a film that will turn popcorn into projectiles. With its dry black humor, the sweet, charming, and inoffensive story leaves the audience with something to find and try to understand. 

On the dreary Oregon coast, Fran quietly sits in her office cubicle amid the humdrum of her colleagues’ mundane banter about information technology problems, HDMI cables, and electric and petrol cars. At the end of her work day, she returns to an empty house and appears content in her introverted bubble. She enjoys the simple pleasures of a glass of wine, cottage cheese, and a sudoku puzzle. 

When longtime colleague Carol (Marcia DeBonis) retires, she’s replaced by the affable and outgoing Robert, who immediately tries to connect with Fran. The pair go to a movie together and stop for pie and a drink at a little diner. The friendly waitress invites them to a party where they play a version of the game wink murder. They also spend time together at his place, watching a movie, but Fran struggles to let down her guard and let Robert get to know her. 

Sometimes I Think About Dying can make viewers feel uncomfortable. Fran’s daydreams or ideations about dying or being dead give the film its quirky appeal, but these aren’t overused. Despite its black humor and its distant lead character, the story is heartfelt, warm, and full of affection, with finely judged performances from Ridley and stand-up comedian Merheje.

“I chose to tell this story of Fran in Sometimes I Think About Dying because I so identified with the isolation a person can feel when they struggle to find connection in the world around them,” writes Lambert in her director’s statement. “She [Fran] so wants to feel love, joy, and communion with others, but the path to those things is often mysterious and out of reach for her.”

Fran’s desire to experience these emotions is unspoken and often only communicated through subtle gestures. These reveal her quiet and insecure yearning for belonging and friendship. Sometimes I Think About Dying is a continuation of Lambert’s interest in human nature, which I first encountered in her sadly overlooked 2016 drama In The Radiant City. That film is about a man who returns home to reconnect with his estranged family decades after testifying against his brother. Lambert appears to be drawn to stories about the difficulty of connecting, and Fran is a complementary character to In The Radiant City’s Andrew Yurley (Michael Abbott Jr).

Unlike its predecessor, Sometimes I Think About Dying offsets the drama with dry humor, encouraging the audience’s lips to creep into a slight smile or nudge viewers to react with a light chuckle. We find the scenarios, the quirks of human nature, and the friction between personality types humorous instead of laughing at the characters. This is particularly true of the office setting, where that strange tension exists between those who see it as a place of work and those who see their colleagues as friends or family. Lambert doesn’t mock or sneer at the idiosyncrasies of the office personalities, instead they’re parodied to emphasize Fran’s isolation, “as if everyone around her received some lesson in being a person that she missed as a child,” says Lambert. 

Lambert chooses not to put the audience inside of Fran’s isolation. Instead, she creates distance. From the beginning, she and her screenwriters emphasize Fran’s dissociation through silence; a silent character in a talkie picture. When she eventually speaks – 22 minutes into the film – it’s for a humorous team icebreaker activity on Robert’s first day. “Hi, I’m Fran. I like cottage cheese,” she says. It’s a scene with a particularly humorous joke by Robert about awkward silences that exemplifies Sometimes I Think About Dying’s understated wit. After the welcoming scene, her chatty colleagues get back to their work and Fran is silent against the background conversation. 

Meanwhile, Lambert and her cinematographer Dustin Lane make some noticeable aesthetic choices: the abstract framing of Fran’s co-workers and, in the early scenes, positioning Fran towards the edge of the frame. The empty space emphasizes disconnection and emptiness, but the camera is also its own character, with its own attention span and point-of-view. Instead of following a character, the camera dawdles like it’s lost in thought. This complements Fran’s daydreams, which are sometimes seamless, and mimics how we only realize we’ve drifted into our own thoughts when our attention snaps back to reality. 

Sometimes I Think About Dying is an attempt at love and, therefore, a dalliance with the love story trope that uses the premise of the genre to dig down into human nature, specifically the difficulty of reprogramming ourselves to rewrite our future. Robert’s interest in Fran and her yearning for connection magnify her social awkwardness, but it’s in the finer points of their interaction where something is to be found and understood. 

One idea is Robert’s confusion between can’t and will not. He believes Fran will not emotionally open up rather than recognising she can’t. This emotionally explosive exchange hurts them both. We can understand Robert’s desire, urgency, and impatience, but we must be critical of his initial lack of compassion for Fran’s vulnerability. 

Thoughtful in their observations about human nature, Lambert, Armento, Horowitz, and Wright-Mead refuse to be too on the nose. Instead, they show restraint and ask the audience to attempt to understand. Sometimes I Think About Dying is like a broken-down car that you have to push if you want it to move forward. It starts off setting up expectations, only to leave us stranded. 

Sometimes I Think About Dying is a storytelling oddity because, typically, stories move forward; they progress. For the film’s story to move forward, Fran must undergo a metamorphosis and shed her introverted skin, letting in Robert and the audience. The filmmakers, however, are happy to trap us in Fran’s orbit, where time moves slower. This approach is attentive to the pace of real life and refuses to accelerate the character’s journey for narrative convenience. 

There is a moment Fran shares with another character that reminds us that life is not always about moving forward but being attentive to the immediate present and that change, if not unlikely, takes time. This shared moment witnesses Fran unexpectedly connect with another soul, a mini cause-and-effect episode that introduces themes and ideas inside Fran and Robert’s relationship.

Sometimes I Think About Dying is closer to Winston Churchill’s adage, “The end of the beginning,” than the culmination of a bigger journey. With a possible echo of Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s classic 1960 romantic comedy-drama The Apartment, Lambert and her writers are playful in how they choose to end the film. Like Wilder’s subversive approach to romance, Lambert is a trickster with narrative conventions, appropriating the love story for her own means but not indebted to its tradition.

Sometimes I Think About Dying premiered at Sundance 2023. It was released theatrically in the US on 26 January 2024 by Oscilloscope and is available on VOD. It was released theatrically in the UK on 19 April 2024 by Vertigo.