“This, too, shall pass.”
None of us ever really knows how much time we have. Depending on your outlook, that’s either an optimistic or pessimistic notion, one which will either spur you on to take chances or freeze you in place, making you incapable of taking a single step without considering all the variables. To a degree, neither is a great way to live without some kind of balance, some sense that, while our time is finite, we should make the most of it while we can. This is, perhaps, a naïve way to go through life, especially with ::gestures everywhere:: happening all at once everywhere on Earth, but if we can make a difference in how we go about our lives, then there’s hope for others, too. At least, that’s the feeling that one is left with after watching director Brandon Dermer’s I’m Totally Fine, a dramedy about love, loss, the rose-tinted past, the unknowable future, and the indiscriminate pain of the present.
Shortly after business partners and best friends Vanessa (Jillian Bell) and Jennifer (Natalie Morales) sign the paperwork for a distribution deal for their organic soda, Jennifer unexpectedly dies. With support from her boyfriend Eric (Blake Anderson), Vanessa heads to the house the duo rented to celebrate their success in hopes of clearing her head, but all of that goes to hell when the realization that Jennifer is gone keeps walloping Vanessa over and over. Compounding matters, an alien appears in a cloned body of Jennifer’s, asking Vanessa to participate in a series of experiments over a 48-hour period to help its species better understand humanity. Is this a breakdown or a breakthrough? Only time will tell.
It takes a lot of working pieces to fit just right in order to make a story like Dermer’s possess some kind of optimism. Here, it’s a mixture of the script by Alisha Ketry (American Dad!), Kermer’s direction, and the performances from Bell and Morales that make-up the majority of the film. The script posits several things: the overwhelming helplessness that comes from unexpected loss, the shattering of plans/expectations, the way in which the world just keeps spinning despite our own desires for everything to freeze in place, and more. We get all of this in the opening of the film in which the audience meets Bell’s Vanessa, the camera showing her car parked on the side of the road with its hazards on before going inside to Vanessa sobbing. Then, when done, she wipes her tears as though nothing’s amiss and merges safely into traffic to finish her journey. We don’t know yet who she is, where she’s going, or what prompted the stop, we only know that it was debilitating and, yet, she perseveres. That the film still manages to create surprises over and again, smartly, is a testament to Ketry’s script in how it knows when to drop bombs, when to allow for egress and recovery, and when to provide comfort.
This is supported by some stellar direction and editing, helping to convey the weight of the narrative. In this case, I refer to the decision to use cuts versus longer takes. Upon waking up from a rather hard night alone, Vanessa is greeted by the cloned Vanessa and, understandably, vomits. We don’t see Vanessa run through the house, we don’t see her struggle under the strain of this strange visage before her. The scene is edited for maximum hilarity and the hard cuts provide the momentum the audience needs to get a laugh in the midst of extreme trauma. But then Dermer forgoes cuts for a bit, the camera moving with Vanessa, even shifting around Bell so the audience can see her reaction, it requires the audience to stick with Vanessa in the moment. In the moment is where the weight is, where the pathos is, as Bell works to wordless convey all the complex emotions of what she’s seen (or thinks she’s seen) without positive confirmation yet. The lack of edits (and this doesn’t occur often in the film) highlights the severity of the situation, the audience anchored to Vanessa as she struggles to reconcile what’s going on. Because I’m Totally Fine is a comedy, there’re plenty of cuts to help move things forward, to generate a sense of fun energy amid discussion or to enhance the hilarious intensity of the exercises that Vanessa undergoes during alien-Jennifer’s experiments. With the absence of hard cuts, Dermer inserts a sense of naturalism, for we, no matter how desperately we want to skip to the good parts of life, cannot.
Then there’re the performances, which are striking for unexpected reasons. This reviewer’s experience with Bell comes from The Night Before (2015), Rough Night (2017), and some various television appearances; while Morales is better known due to standout performances in White Collar (2009-2010), The Newsroom (2012), Parks and Recreation (2010-2015), not to mention her directorial work in the hilariously touching Plan B (2021). In short, I knew enough that Bell and Morales would be able to hold down the lead responsibilities of the project, but was not prepared for how strongly their work would resonate. Neither actor has it easier than the other: Bell needed to play a wide range of human emotions, while Morales vocally and physically stretches herself to appear just left of center as an alien with no prior experience of humanity. The way each reacts or responds to the other never feels false, even within the elevated circumstances, so that we, like Vanessa at times, forget that alien-Jennifer is exactly that, a facsimile of humanity. These two actors feel like natural scene partners, always giving the other exactly what they need to shine whether it’s physical comedy or more serious tonal delivery in order to achieve the aims of the film total.
One can’t help but wonder if some things were scrapped in an effort to keep things neat and clean for the 83-minute runtime. There’s an interaction between the unnamed towny (Kyle Newacheck (Workaholics)) and Vanessa that feels like it comes out of nowhere given what we see. It’s a moment that helps recenter the film, moving the foundation once-more so that Vanessa isn’t as on firm emotional ground as she appears, but is so abrupt it seems out of place given the interactions thus far between the towny and Vanessa. Additionally, while I applaud the way the script places a unique spin on the inevitable breakdown in communication between Vanessa and alien-Jennifer, it seems itself to time skip from morning to dusk through the scene merely to add weight to a line delivery. (It works, but it feels superficial when one notices the strangeness of it.)
Before COVID-19 shook the world, shifting how we connect with one another for the foreseeable future, I lost a friend unexpectedly. We were close in middle and high school, but lost touch when I moved to a different state my senior year and never really got back to where we were before I left. Despite still keeping in touch, being a part in some way or another at each other’s weddings, delighting that my eldest child got to meet her, I will always regret the time we lost because I moved, because I struggle with communication, because she left us without any opportunity to say goodbye. Ketry’s script beautifully and honestly captures the way that grief is not a constant, but is something that comes in waves, often surprising us as some thought, sound, or objects causes us to instinctually reach for the one who’s gone, crashing upon us anew. In moments like those, I think about a story actor Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) shared about working with Kevin Bacon (Space Oddity) in which, while expressing her feelings about some difficulty as a parent, he told her, “This too shall pass.” It’s a phrase many have heard, but he continued by sharing his interpretation that it refers not just to the bad stuff, but to the good. Since then, I’ve tried to remind myself of this because grief isn’t permanent, nor is joy. I suspect, to a certain measure, this is an underlying element of Dermer’s film which is explored through a very other-worldly and surreal means. So tell your friends and family you love them while you can. Try not to dwell too hard on what was or what could be; be present in what is. If we could learn to do that, perhaps, when we say we’re totally fine, we’ll mean it.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital November 4th, 2022.
For more information, head to DECAL’s official I’m Totally Fine webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.