Dying to Sleep opens at night and in medias res, with Mary Swanson (SarahLydia Sophia) dragging something heavy in a bag from her car to a house, only to spill its contents in shock as she is greeted at the door by family and friends for a surprise birthday party. While the darkness and Jesse Billson’s ominous score create the genre-bound impression that the bag will contain a body, in fact it is just Mary’s (literal) dirty laundry, which she is hoping to throw into the working washing machine at the house of her parents Helen (Maria Pinsent) and Martin (Roy Abramsohn).
“She thought she saw something but no,” says Mary’s brother Joe (played by the film’s director/co-writer Paris Dylan) of Mary, as the Swanson family, gathered with Mary’ best friend Jen (Victoria Baldesarra) and Joe’s work colleague Tommy (Jataun Gilbert), all play a game of bullshit that Mary is losing. Meanwhile Joe, Jen and Tommy’s conversation turns to their former acquaintance Lilith, who was not just antiestablishment but ‘the complete Antichrist’ back when they all knew her, but who supposedly has since turned to church and God. “So you don’t believe that redemption is a thing?”, Mary asks the sceptical Tommy. Later driving the drunk Joe back home, Mary will brake violently, thinking that she has both seen – and hit – a hoodie-wearing boy in the road, despite there being no trace of a body outside Joe’s truck.
This prologue to Dylan’s feature debut sets out a number of themes that will recur in the ensuing narrative, set again around Mary’s birthday one year later. In the opening scene Mary may not have been dragging an actual body, but now, having failed to move on from the mysterious truck incident, she is still having to carry a burden of guilt and trauma over a road collision that may not even have happened. Mary now refuses to drive again, she suffers anxiety and crippling insomnia, she cannot hold down a job, and when she is able to sleep, or increasingly even when she is awake, she has nightmarish encounters in which she sees – or thinks that she sees – dead people. And Mary’s already tense relationship with her mother, who disapproves of Mary’s sexuality, has deteriorated further as Helen and Martin go through a fractious divorce. Like Lilith, Mary is desperate for some kind of transformative salvation.
When the pharmaceutical regime prescribed by her physician Dr Palmer (Eric Roberts) fails in any way to help, Mary turns to Dr Frank Cyrus (Dar Dixon) for a more holistic approach to what ails her. “Tell me, are you a God-fearing woman?”, Frank asks Mary in her first consultation. An ageing, softly spoken, somewhat haunted hippie who relentlessly quotes the Bible, Frank is as conflicted and contradictory as lesbian, lapsed Catholic Mary, but understands that his patient’s problems, running deeper than mere stress, are partly of a spiritual nature. Frank, though, has pain and problems of his own.
Dying To Sleep is all at once ghost story and recovery drama, as the troubles of different people, both dead and alive, dovetail with each other via a sort of transdimensional cross-talk. Here everything is expressed at one remove, by proxy, so that Mary’s road to healing is as much psychic as it is psychological. “Whatever is happening, it’s completely messed your head up”, as Joe points out. “You have to stop seeing this guy, he’s getting inside your head, he’s manipulating you somehow, he’s making you think things that aren’t real.” Joe is not exactly wrong in his diagnosis, but what is going on in Mary’s head is a mysterious process, leading to a complicated kind of redemption.
In Dying To Sleep, a sleepless young woman and other restless souls synch up to mend their personal issues through family reconciliation, queer solidarity and forgiveness of self. At times the modest budget shows, lending a somewhat soapy quality to all the domestic dysfunction – but this Shyamalan-esque anniversay saga is ingeniously constructed, so that Mary experiences mental illness and mediumship simultaneously, leaving the viewer, along with this hapless heroine, constantly disoriented, before ultimately finding unexpected if satisfying resolution.
strap: In Paris Dylan’s queer ghost story, several restless souls travel parallel roads to redemption
© Anton Bitel