I’m Totally Fine is the latest film to take a stab at using sci-fi ideas on an indie budget in ways that show that a herculean CGI effort isn’t required. Starring Jillian Bell, Natalie Morales and Kyle Newacheck (who all serve as executive producers on the movie), it becomes clear that the film comes from the heart and maybe a shared anecdotal sadness.
Vanessa (Jillian Bell) is a young woman who has just set up a deal to have an organic soda sold in stores around the country. However, the hold back is that her best friend, Jennifer (Natalie Morales), has passed away. Vanessa sets out on a journey to deal with her grief under the guise she’s celebrating her newfound success, but it becomes clear when we see Vanessa crying in in her new white Tesla that what she has lost is far more than what she gained.
The film finds its hook in the way that Vanessa ends up having to confront her grief as, suddenly, an alien who looks exactly like her shows up at her rental house and wishes to use this time to study her for the benefit of her species. This is a smart and interesting concept to stake the movie on. There’s a lot of potential in this alien learning about the beauty and pitfalls of humanity. Vanessa will also grow by getting the chance to accept the passing of her friend by spending an intentional 48 hours with someone who looks like her and has all her memories. The simple sci-fi concept also allows for Natalie Morales to play a dual role as both the extra-terrestrial and the late Jennifer, who shows up in a few videos that Vanessa watches during her grief.
It takes time for Vanessa to get used to the presence of this alien who looks like her friend but without any sense of human qualities. The alien looks and knows what Jennifer thought and did, but she contains none of the qualities that made her ‘Jennifer’. Director Brayden Dermer communicates Vanessa’s shock well in his decision to take the camera off the tripod at the beginning of the film, using it to visually communicate this shake up, an apt technical choice that he combines with liberal use of jump cuts in order to get us into the grieving mindset that Vanessa resides within.
The idea for the film is great. We should see a new takes on a foreign species learning and embracing the beautiful parts of humanity while allowing the human to discover a new truth about the world. Its an interesting way to explore how we deal with grief as the film asks what we would do if we had a bit more time with our loved ones who are no longer with us. Unfortunately, this idea needed a lot more refining and a stronger directorial vision to be the effective comedic drama that it set out to be. The first directional problem that presents a clear problem that will likely ice out a lot of viewers is the lack of personality from the alien. Her delivery and the way her dialogue is written are extremely robotic but she also lacks a sense of self-awareness to make it consistently comedic. As a result, her character doesn’t fit with the performance and tone that Jillian Bell tries to give until late into the movie. Combined with mostly dramatically fueled directional choices, this film misses the unique tone that it strives for.
The result is a film that becomes so difficult to connect to because one of your leads is a cold unfeeling robot even though they look like–and have the memories of–a person. Films like Under the Skin do a similar thing but the alien in that movie can hold normal conversations. What’s more, while that film also strives for a dark and unsettling tone, this wants to be bright and comedic. Most depictions of the most basic A.I robots show semblance of personality so an audience can be connected to them or fascinated by them. A character like E.T does both. Despite the lack of humanity in his appearance, his warmth and innocence make him loveable. He sees the unknown world of Reese’s Pieces, cluttered attics, and the basket of a bicycle as adventures not as a boring scientific study but as an adventure to be had. By the time, Totally Fine starts to break down the emotional barriers that the alien seemed to set up, its too late to care about it or the relationship that it has with Vanessa.
It’s clearly an intentional choice to have the alien act this way but it seems unfounded considering the genre they’re going for. It can’t even execute the empathy provoking fish out of water idea. It may be an overplayed trope, but it could have helped the alien deliver genuinely humorous moments. This highly analytical alien pointing out some of the more absurd parts of human culture through visual comedy could have been quite effective. However, the film instead seems satisfied making the alien weird by having it drink olive oil, hitchhike and be fascinated by food. Films like this are hard to connect to when the alien is not reflecting a truth about us as humans. As a result, Totally Fine lacks the human connection it seems to strive for in the third act.
The film also has many bizarre choices that you would rarely see in professionally made films such as odd uses of sound mixing. In one scene music that should be blaring is quieter than the voice of our leads. The way the scenes are set up is often awkward. Vanessa is forced by a company whose already been paid to accept the party supplies that she ordered for her and Jennifer before her passing. The negotiation Vanessa has with the party caterer is awkward and seems very unnatural as it aims to finish the scene with the food and party decorations in the house. The screenplay often stunts any sense of growth we should feel as these characters grow and change. They have effective character arches but how they’re delivered makes it tough to suspend disbelief.
I’m Totally Fine is an admirable idea that was executed hastily and with a cast and crew whose vision did not fit the tone this movie needed to achieve. The writer and directors’ sense of humour probably meshes with the stars off screen, but it could not translate into a well-formed screenplay or created inspired technical choices. The idea is great, this director and writer should create more story ideas together. They should take their time with these interesting concepts they come with and figure out how to execute their genre before trying to play with it too much. Here, it seems they jumped the gun on their experimental ideas and the result is a film that can’t effectively communicate where it’s heart is.
I’m Totally Fine is available on VOD on Tuesday, December 6th, 2022.