Something, Anything is a quiet, interior film that for most of its running time, is entirely un-cinematic. Yet while I’ve used that as a pejorative before, and the film’s subject might have been more naturally explored in prose or another medium, it was hugely refreshing to see this story of spiritual longing play out on the big screen.
Set in Knoxville, TN, the film is outside of usually explored terrain both geographically and thematically. At the film’s onset, Margaret (Ashley Shelton) is living, for all outward appearances, an ordinary life. She is succeeding as a realtor, is in a mostly happy marriage with Mark (Bryce Johnson), and is surrounded by a circle of similar friends. We see small fractures emerge, but they’re just small things, the sort of everyday disappointment that is usually forgotten instead of auguring monumental change. Her life seems about to transition into its next stage when she becomes pregnant, but instead she has a tragic miscarriage (which happens in a way that far from Mark’s fault, but makes him look like a jerk regardless). After the miscarriage, she attempts to settle back into her old routine, but something is now off and she can’t find it within herself to be that person again. Slowly, she reexamines every aspect of her life and finds it wanting.
What makes this film so unique and refreshing is that, following Margaret’s miscarriage and her withdrawal from her normal social circle, almost all of the “action” of the film is interior and unspoken, happening only in Margaret’s mind and defined as much by what she does not do as what she does. She doesn’t formally divorce Mark, but she moves into her own place, and gives away most of her possessions. She gives up her overly commercial job as a realtor and takes a much lower-paying job as a library assistant. At the library, she reads and reads, both the Bible and stories of other spiritual seekers like Thomas Merton. What is beautiful and tragic about these scenes is how what she’s looking for is never explicitly spoken, but understood to anyone looking at the face of talented newcomer Ashley Shelton. There’s no one thing that divides her from Mark and her old friends but they can all sense that an inexorable gulf of values now exists between them.
The film’s second half concerns Margaret’s search taking on a more concrete object – Tim (Linds Edwards), the brother of a high school friend who has become a literal monk. Finding Tim seems important to Margaret to bridge her past and present and perhaps present a way forward, so she travels to the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, once home to Merton (this is the first fictional film to ever shoot there). Tim has left the monastery, but she eventually finds him and finds a sympathetic soul, even if they’re not quite ready for each other. Apart from the unique scenes at the monastery, Something, Anything also features a stunning scene of North America’s only synchronous fireflies, an event of ephemeral beauty that serves to unite Margaret and Tim even though they experience it separately.
Something, Anything portrays a beautiful quest for meaning, with a simple authenticity that could only be found in an outside the mainstream endeavor, such as this debut film from director Paul Harrill. While avoiding religious dogma, Harrill is committed to examining spiritual ideas that have been almost entirely absent from America film as of late. Margaret is alienated by a society that requires conforming to a spiritually bereft set of values, but instead of languishing in anger or resentment, she opens her heart and earnestly searches for something more.