I’m Not Here
by Brandon Thomas
Loss, regret and redemption permeate people’s lives. We all have those things we wish we could “do over” — a life mulligan, if you will. It’s a universal fantasy that binds us together as human beings. This idea of redemption, or at least the understanding of one’s mistakes, is right at the muddled heart of I’m Not Here.
Steven (J.K. Simmons) is a shell of a man. He drinks too much, lives in squalor and has distanced himself from his remaining family. Through a rotating series of flashbacks, we’re introduced to Steven as a boy dealing with the complexities of his parents’ divorce, and also as a young man (Sebastian Stan) who has just started to make his own life-altering missteps. For present-day Steven, a phone call delivering upsetting news brings all of his past trauma to the surface.
I’m Not Here is frustrating. Its cast is more than capable of knocking this kind of material out of the park, but they are hobbled by a poor script and weak direction. Simmons fares best as his segments are solo and allow him to channel the intensity that’s he’s so well known for. The rest of the cast, including Stan, Maika Monroe and Mandy Moore, get bogged down by the cliche-ridden script. The lack of subtlety, especially in the flashback segments, undermines the emotional wallop of grief and loss that director Michelle Schumacher is trying to convey.
Schumacher’s handling of the material is scattershot. The present day scenes involving Simmons show a confidence that isn’t replicated in the flashbacks. The present day material has a more natural flow that lets the audience settle into Steven’s world of loneliness and self-pity. The darkness of his home mirrors the darkness of his life. On the other hand, the flashbacks offer hazy, overlit scenes that wouldn’t be out of place on CBS’s prime time schedule.
Casting Steven as the ultimate Unreliable Narrator is perhaps I’m Not Here’s greatest strength. His unwillingness to come to terms with his choices have clouded his memories with excuses. Steven’s memories cast him as a victim with only slivers of truth peeking through.
I’m Not Here has the foundation for a complex look at how tragedy and grief shape us, but it doesn’t have the follow-through. This one is not worth remembering.