Sunday 1 November 2020

On demand: "She Dies Tomorrow"

Mumblecore graduate Amy Seimetz couldn't possibly have known the world her second feature would emerge into when she sat down and typed the words FADE IN, but - as many observers have already noted - She Dies Tomorrow feels like 2020 in a nutshell. Here's a film powered by the apocalyptic cloud of dread and anxiety that has been hanging over the West in recent years, and which was only thickened when the Coronavirus came to town. Its first act, all but a one-woman show, evokes those dull, lonely nights when the walls start closing in on you. Kate Lyn Sheil, the taut, pallid sparrow of mumblecore, plays Amy, introduced sulking and skulking around her unfinished apartment for reasons that only gradually become apparent: Amy has grown convinced tonight's will be the last sunset she'll ever see. (A lot of creatives will have felt that way, at one time or another; this evocation of extreme insecurity may be lost on viewers working in the financial sector.) Caught between sinking into total despair and taking action to lift herself out of it, she's altogether mixed-up, as her sister Jane (Jane Adams) realises when she shows up at Amy's to find her clad in a spangly gown and wielding a leaf blower. This, naturally, unsettles big sis, as we are in turn by the gloomy music and Lynchian light show that marks the episode. Amy, it turns out, is her own kind of superspreader, patient zero in a super-localised epidemic. What's catching? Depression, of a form, that black hole that sucks in its sufferers and all those around them, even - especially - those struggling to pull themselves out.

What follows is an unusual, arty, mostly bloodless horror film where the bogeyman is a mood - those heavy emotional weather fronts that drift in when you least expect it, and prove difficult to navigate. I have a terrible feeling She Dies Tomorrow is going to be one of those movies that will split watching couples right down the middle: women may respond on some profound, instinctive level to it, while certain boyfriends offer doggedly rational responses from the other end of the sofa. (There were places early on where this viewer wondered why Amy couldn't just stick a Carly Rae Jepsen album on - but I'm all too aware that, in the grip of the worst depressive episodes, even the brightest of pop tastes and sounds sour. Why aren't I enjoying myself like she is?) Accept the premise - rather than snark or smart-arse around it, an insensitive response in this context - and She Dies Tomorrow will open up before you as a quietly clever, playful, even funny watch. Seimetz's plotting proceeds on the (correct) assumption that, with the exception of a small handful of doctors, nobody in polite society really knows how best to deal with the depressed. Jane walks into a dinner party in her pyjamas, and immediately brings the mood of light bonhomie down. Two partygoers strike up small talk over a birthday cake, and wind up confronted by their own mortality. The misery multiplies, deepens in a way even "Call Me Maybe" couldn't pull back. The apocalypse according to Seimetz isn't some conclusive, fiery big bang, rather a slow, sinking sensation, intensified by the sight of characters slumping six feet below our eyelines. It's the end of the world as we know it, and everyone feels lousy.

Which brings us back to 2020. What's genuinely clever about Seimetz's film - what could possibly even be life-saving, not an adjective applicable to many movies - is how the writer-director combats the proliferation of mad-bad-sad thoughts onscreen by setting out her own range of treatments, from close medical attention to the more affordable, accessible option of getting high and making out with someone. Different perspectives and/or coping strategies emerge in the second half: some characters come to appreciate that morbid thoughts are a luxury those presently on ventilators don't have, others to embrace that mortality, choosing to live as though they really don't have that long for this world. If those don't appeal, you can always wait until the sun comes up again, that traditional horror-movie tack - and Seimetz credibly dramatises the possibility that things do change, and the advantages gained from seeing the world in a new light. You could prescribe it as a hall-of-fame break-up movie or period-pains movie, but above all else it's a very good movie movie: a smart idea, properly thought through, and well played by an expressive ensemble (going beyond the usual mumblers to embrace the likes of Michelle Rodriguez, Chris Messina and even experimental-film legend James Benning) who convey a lot through numbed whispers while sustaining a twitchy, unsettled vibe. If the onscreen Amy appears lost, her namesake behind the camera proves wise to the ways by which creative minds can overcome the stumbling blocks of mental health. She Dies Tomorrow doesn't give gently into the gloomy night it depicts, instead actively seeking a cure for our collective ails and blues - even if that's just distracting the downturned brain over 84 minutes.

She Dies Tomorrow is available to stream via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player.

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