It’s easy to get existential in the wake of a global pandemic. Why are we here? What do we mean to each other? When you lose someone, what happens to all the love you felt for them?
If you’re Vanessa, the protagonist of the new indie tearjerker “I’m Totally Fine,” you bottle up all your grief until you feel like you’re going to explode. And then suddenly you have to face it, because you get visited by a space alien that looks exactly like your dead best friend.
So goes the witty, bittersweet conceit of this film, the first feature from director Brandon Dermer (“Flatbush Misdemeanors”) and writer Alisha Ketry (“Fuller House,” “American Dad!”). Despite its sci-fi bend, the greatest strength of “I’m Totally Fine” is its smallness. A stellar script and two standout performances from Jillian Bell and the sensational Natalie Morales round out this sweet little flick which, despite its intergalactic ambitions, doesn’t stray far from a rental house in wine country.
Vanessa (Bell) has fled to that rental house to process the loss of her best friend, Jennifer (Morales). Business partners as well as besties, Vanessa and Jen originally rented the house to throw a party celebrating the distribution of their organic soda. A pragmatist and skilled compartmentalizer, Vanessa is determined to modify their venue into a much-needed retreat, but of course memories of Jen follow her everywhere. For one, she forgot to cancel the party decorations and catering.
After a night of indulging in champagne and cake, Vanessa falls asleep, only to awaken with a monster hangover and Jennifer — or something that looks a lot like Jennifer — standing in the dining room. The being is an alien who has adopted Jennifer’s form and has access to all of her memories. It offers Vanessa a trade-off: If Vanessa lets the alien study her, she’ll get to spend another 48 hours with her best friend.
Cathartic chaos ensues. The alien does prove to have access to Jennifer’s memories, but she is, after all, not actually Jennifer. Per the alien, “Jennifer continues, and will continue, to remain deceased.” Vanessa, who limits herself by trying to control everything, is about to get a crash course in acceptance.
If this film were about anything else, it might not be so wonderful. Dermer, who has spent the bulk of his career directing music videos, is still growing beyond that format. Wojciech Kielar’s cinematography is fairly pedestrian, save for one pivotal, exultant sequence in which the alien enjoys a sunset. The production’s undoubtedly tiny budget seems mostly to have gone to VFX for a scanner the alien uses. It might have been better spent making the film look more vibrant.
But on the whole this poignant, unvarnished story, anchored by Morales’ performance, is strong enough to carry itself. (The ending feels a bit rushed, but it may well leave you sobbing all the same.) The alien role requires a deft player, someone who can both embody Jennifer and sell the extraterrestrial as its own, complicated character. Morales does this to a tee: She represents Vanessa’s vivacious, carefree best friend while also speaking like a robot and drinking olive oil. (To keep her skin from melting.)
Endlessly curious and unused to human social cues, the alien speaks with unprecedented — at times, childlike — candor. As a result, Morales gets some of the best lines, like when Vanessa refuses a ride from a kind stranger, and the alien asks her, “What does it feel like? To be unreasonable?”
Of course, just like Waymond and Evelyn in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” this film’s sincere goofball would have little room to shine without a stubborn counterpart. Vanessa is wonderfully frustrating, and Bell gamely captures her grief. Since Jen is being represented by an uncanny facsimile, we mostly rely on Vanessa to get a sense of her late friend and what that friendship meant to her. The result is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of loss, rife with affection, sadness, and frustration.
It helps that these characters feel so lived-in. The script weaves in specific quirks to keep Vanessa and Jen grounded, despite their otherworldly experiences. Perhaps the best such idiosyncrasy is that the friends were enamored with the hard rock band Papa Roach in middle school — an homage by the director, who is a real-life fan.
As a result, the band’s biggest hit, “Last Resort,” earns crucial screen time. For the unfamiliar, “Last Resort” is a suicidal ideation anthem punctuated by guttural vocals and the occasional scream. That tells us a lot about the kinds of girls Vanessa and Jen were in middle school, and it offers adult Vanessa some of the primal-scream catharsis she so desperately needs.
The lyrics to “Last Resort” may be drastic, but in a weird way, they perfectly encapsulate this film’s worldview. “Nothing’s alright,” the song goes halfway through the bridge. “Nothing is fine.” And for Vanessa, that’s certainly true. As multiple characters remind her throughout the film, her best friend is never going to come back. They’re never going to do all the things they thought they would do together. Nothing will ever make that alright, or fair, or fine.
And that’s OK. Eventually, Vanessa has no choice but to move forward from her loss. She doesn’t have to fight her grief or ignore it; she just has to accept its presence, like one might an inconvenient visitor from another planet.
“I’m Totally Fine” opens in US theaters and on demand Nov. 4 via Decal.