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Grief doesn't present in just one way. Grief literally messes with your mind. Someone dies, and you can still hear their footsteps in the hall. You think you see them on a crowded street. You can't delete their number from your phone. Grief is a tough subject to address because it isn't understood or accepted in society. You lose a parent and you have to be at work the next week. The Victorians may have had some weird ideas but they were right on the money with the custom of wearing a black armband for some time after a death. The black armband makes visible the loss experienced. Brandon Dermer's "I'm Totally Fine" is a funny and charming movie, with two entertaining performances from Jillian Bell and Natalie Morales at its center, but where it really works is in its understanding of grief, and how grief can turn someone's world—and mind—upside down. The best sci-fi illuminates darker corners of the human condition and screenwriter Alisha Ketry has crafted a sci-fi context illustrating the destabilizing experience of grief in thought-provoking ways.
Vanessa (Bell) is grieving the loss of Jennifer (Morales), her best friend since childhood. The two of them created a business together, selling organic soda, and were just about to celebrate their first distribution deal when Jennifer dropped dead from a pre-existing and yet undiagnosed condition. Vanessa's world is turned upside down. She is first seen sobbing in her car on the side of the highway, while on her way to a luxurious villa she and Jennifer rented to throw a party for the launch of their company. Now there will be no party. Vanessa goes out to the location anyway, to "clear her head." She wanders through the empty mansion. She's completely disoriented and becomes even more so when Jennifer—or someone who looks exactly like Jennifer—strolls into the kitchen.
This Jennifer may be an identical twin of the real and dead Jennifer, but she speaks robotically, and claims she is an extraterrestrial, sent on a mission to earth to study the ways of humans. Alien Jennifer has inherited all of the real Jennifer's memories, and yet alien Jennifer does not understand life on earth, it is a mystery to her. She murmurs into little dictaphone-type extraterrestrial gadget observations like "Human has turned anger on herself.” At first, Vanessa refuses to believe that what is happening is really happening. She is clearly having some kind of psychotic break, she thinks. Grief has made her "see things." She literally rubs her eyes, hoping alien robotic-voiced Jennifer will go away.
What then follows may be somewhat expected, but it's nonetheless pleasurable to watch it unfold. Vanessa finds herself comforted being in the presence of her old friend, or at least the appearance of the presence. Alien Jennifer is baffled by so much of what she sees. Humans are very weird to her! What’s all this crying and laughing business? When she tries to put all these things together in a way that makes sense—to her and to her “bosses” back home—her conclusions remind me of one of my favorite poems, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home by Craig Raine. The Martian describes an alarm clock thus:
"In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up."
The Martian then observes human pain:
"Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room
with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises
alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell."
Alien Jennifer has a similar experience. She watches Vanessa's various emotional explosions and attempts to understand what the heck is going on with this strange being. Vanessa is totally thrown off by alien Jennifer looking exactly like the real Jennifer. In a way, she almost doesn't care that alien Jennifer is an alien. It is just so good to be in her friend's presence again. Vanessa mourns the past, but she's also mourning the future, the future she now will not have. She and Jennifer won't grow old together. The time they had together was all they would have.
A couple of other characters show up periodically in "I'm Totally Fine," most notably "Deejay Twisted" (Harvey Guillén), hired for the canceled party. Vanessa forgot to cancel the Deejay, so he arrives in a glow-in-the-dark jacket, bearing a stash of Molly, beaming a huge non-judgmental smile. Hosting a dance party for just two people? No problem! He's happy as long as he's getting paid.
Bell, who came out of improv, brings the improviser's quick wit, emotional depth, and sense of reality, to whatever she does. Witness 2019's "Brittany Runs a Marathon." In "I'm Totally Fine," her emotional distress is real and extremely touching. But her sense of humor is irrepressible, and her line readings are on point. She turns down a Xanax offered by a party planner, acting extremely offended at the presumption, but then mid-sentence changes her mind and says, "Yeah, okay, I'll have one." Her performance is full of details like this, and humor is often in the details.
Morales is very funny playing a literal-minded alien who is immune to social niceties, has no sense of humor, has to practice smiling, and is extremely distracted by the sensation of having eyebrows. Alien Jennifer has a journey to go on too, but it is through Bell we get the friendship, we get the backstory, and ... we can feel all that has been lost.
"I'm Totally Fine" is a gentle relationship-focused film, and its sci-fi trappings are an "excuse" to explore a very important topic in amusing and insightful ways.
Now playing in theaters and on digital platforms.
Jillian Bell as Vanessa
Natalie Morales as Jennifer/Extra Terrestrial
Kyle Newacheck as Smoking Towny
Harvey Guillén as DJ Twisted Bristle
Karen Maruyama as Sandra
Blake Anderson as Eric