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Feeling Seen by Sometimes I Think About Dying

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Rachel Lambert’s “Sometimes I Think About Dying” examines the doldrum life of a 30-something office drone named Fran, played by Daisy Ridley, who is profoundly shy. She scrolls through spreadsheets and returns home to play sudoku and consume cottage cheese. Day in and day out, she recycles this solitary and silent routine. The pensive film touches on a topic that is rarely explored in cinema: female social anxiety. Through Fran, I am able to see a version of myself on screen. I’ve rarely found a female character that I can deeply relate to, someone who feels apprehensive about social situations and has difficulty enduring them.

While there are many films about girls who are painfully awkward and shy, they are usually coming-of-age stories, such as Todd Stoldtz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s off-puttingly twee “Amélie.” Perhaps the closest has been Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” a searing portrait of a newscaster with crippling social skills and depression. The mental struggle of depression is more often explored on screen, such as in “The Hours” or “Girl, Interrupted,” but these films occasionally veer into melodramatic tropes. Through exquisite cinematography and grandiose performances, they can romanticize women’s anguish, imbuing their mental suffering with a tragic elegance and poeticism. Although Fran has surrealistic reveries of dying in various ways—lying in the middle of a field with bugs crawling on her, wrapped in driftwood on a beach, or being lifted by a mechanical crane—they come from her uncomfortability engaging with others, rather than outright depression. It’s not so much that she wants to commit suicide, but that not existing would be so much easier than having to withstand another minute of social interaction.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” depicts social anxiety with a far more delicate sincerity, mainly thanks to Daisy Ridley’s silent movie–star type performance. In this role—so different from the plucky space princess that made her famous—she does not speak for the first twenty minutes, rarely has dialogue above a whisper, and mostly relies on her physicality to communicate Fran’s insecurity. Her orb-like face fills the screen with her wide-eyed stare, like a deer caught in headlights, and perpetually downturned mouth. Her body seems to fold into itself, hunching her shoulders as if she is trying to take up as little space as possible. Her entire being vibrates with a nervous energy, making it seem as if her chugging thoughts are visible as she questions every encounter with others.

Ridley’s gestures are subtle, but I recognize the malaise behind them, especially in a brief moment where she closes her eyes after her chirpy office manager suggests sharing their favorite food during introductions to a new co-worker. While this may seem like a lighthearted icebreaker or team-building activity, for someone with social anxiety, it’s daunting. It triggers a heart-pounding, thoughts-racing response where you agonize over how to answer and fear being judged for whatever you choose. Megan Statler is a superb choice for the role of Fran’s co-worker Isobel, perfectly embodying the perky, boisterous, and extroverted personality type that can make you feel small. When someone’s spotlight shines extra bright, it puts you further in the dark, leaving you even more isolated and incapable of ever matching their effervescent energy.

Visually, Rachel Lambert constantly demarcates Fran from her colleagues, often framing her standing in an ungainly manner [MS1] between two people talking, or lingering on the outskirts of a spirited group discussion. Even while she is huddled in the cocoon of her cubicle, the animated chatter of her co-workers buzzes in the background. They laugh and gossip with a carefreeness that feels completely foreign to her. On the flip side, her home life is presented in a very methodical and noiseless fashion. The use of dissolves, one image seamlessly transitioning into the next, evokes the mundanity of her existence. One day bleeds into the other with little to distinguish between them. She drives in town, walks to work, microwaves her food, brushes her teeth, gets ready for bed. Over and over again. These are the hushed rhythms of her loneliness. In a fleeting moment, she glances at a mother and her children, a furtive action that reflects her longing to be part of a “normal” life, yet unable to muster the courage to participate in the world in order to make that possible.

One shot in particular perfectly encapsulates social anxiety. Before stepping into a party, Fran stands frozen at the door, mentally preparing herself for a sea of unfamiliar faces—a position I’ve often found myself in. The image is brief, but it vividly portrays the bodily experience of living with social anxiety. I always need a moment to pause and compose myself before stepping into a large social gathering. It always feels like a daunting task to push myself forward, anchored down by the weight of nervousness and self-doubt. This scene brings back memories of a summer study abroad trip. I took one look at the sweaty, drunk throng of partygoers and went straight back to the safety of my room. There was another time where I hid inside my room during a house party that was being thrown in my own house (an event I tried to prevent my roommates from organizing). My college party experiences were few and far between; anxiety and an ambivalence to alcohol do not mix well (although I could probably use the social lubrication, I’ve never enjoyed it). I would often just stay in my dorm and play the Sims; the poetic irony that I preferred a 3D simulacrum of life, which I can control, over my real one is not lost on me.

Rachel Lambert eloquently describes Fran’s dilemma in her interview with the Alliance of Women Film Journalists: “I think she’s spent the whole of her life convinced that everyone else around her can be a person much more easily than she can. As a result, the frustration of that urge draws her inward, as it does a lot of us. I think when you take up that much residence inside, it starts to become the main space of your interaction of your stimulation of your thoughts, your feelings, your dreams, and that starts to sprout a lot of inner life, but it can also become the chief place that you’re living your life as a result.” This is precisely how social anxiety rears its ugly head, and we see this through Daisy Ridley’s carefully calibrated performance and Rachel Lambert’s thoughtful direction. Witnessing my own experience portrayed in such plain visual language, it was as if I was peering at myself through a looking glass, rather than someone else through the lens of a camera.

When you believe that everyone can function as a human being better than you, it is very easy to spiral into self-loathing. For Fran, she perceives herself as “not interesting” enough to even be worthy of acknowledgement. Social anxiety thrusts you in a cruel ouroboros where you desperately crave connection but assume you are too flawed to obtain it. For years, I’d cry while scrolling past Instagram posts of #Friendsgiving celebrations or couples flashing their sparkly new engagement rings, feeling like a reclusive loser. Yet, if a social opportunity came up where I had the chance to experience the joys of friendship or dating, I was too paralyzed with fear to put myself out there. And so the cycle of self-hatred would keep turning.

Mirroring Fran, for my entire life I’ve found myself hovering like a ghost around conversations, silent and unsure of how to join in. I rarely speak unless someone speaks to me first. No matter what environment I was in—as a jittery college freshman, unpaid intern, or even at my first “big girl” job—it always seemed as if everyone pooled into cliques. They would quickly develop inside jokes and forge alliances while I was left behind. This constant confirmation of how easily others can communicate is absolutely crushing. It’s a pain you feel you deserve because this all should be so simple, but isn’t. Rather than wallowing, Fran’s perception of her dullness morphs into a pointed anger, leading her to lash out at her new crush when he questions why it is so hard to penetrate her outer shell.

With our stony faces, forced smiles, and minimal eye contact, I can understand how Fran and I appear too standoffish. Yet our aloof expressions are merely a defense mechanism. On the inside, our thoughts are barreling like a freight train: “Everyone is judging me,” “I’m going to embarrass myself,” “I don’t belong here,” “I’m not good enough,” “What if I say something stupid?” “They’re all talking about me,” “Nobody likes me,” “I hope they don’t make fun of me,” “Why can’t I be more like everyone else?” For someone with social anxiety, we feel so uncomfortable in our own skin that the prospect of putting ourselves out there is just far too overwhelming, and retreating into solitude seems like the only viable option. I’ve turned down countless camping trips, farewell parties, dinners, and dates because I felt so deeply that I was unfit for the world and was terrified of being scrutinized by others.

Toward the end of “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” Fran stumbles across one of her former co-workers at a cafe. After their open discussion about Carol’s husband’s medical problems and the less-than-rosy realities of life after retirement, Carol says, “It’s hard being a person, isn’t it?” In this instance, Fran realizes that everyone has difficulty navigating life. This can be difficult to remember when it seems as if everyone’s interactions flow like a bubbling stream, while you remain still. This moment with Carol may be upsetting, but it’s authentic, devoid of the superficial niceties that often mask reality.

Encountering this rawness prompts Fran to finally confide in her crush. She reveals her thoughts about dying, finally getting to know someone on a deeper level without worrying about their reaction. During their embrace, plants begin sprouting around them, symbolizing that life can flourish abundantly when you finally take the risk and open yourself up to someone. A few years ago, I reached a similar epiphany and I made a New Year’s promise to myself that I would say yes to more social invitations instead of retreating to the comfort of my home. The loneliness was starting to outweigh my phobias. So, I accepted a brunch invitation from someone I barely knew. Today, we’re married. Just as Fran does, I realized that only I had the power to change, and that life truly is a garden of possibilities. All it takes is a little courage and a willingness to be vulnerable.

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