Sun Choke full movie review - Visually stunning art house chiller
Directed by Ben Cresciman,Sun Choke begins by introducing the viewer into the life of Janie (Sarah Hagan). Janie is recovering from a violent psychotic breakdown.
Each day, her lifelong nanny, Irma (Barbara Crampton), subjects Janie to a bizarre holistic health regime. Eventually, Irma, who is in contact with Janie's absent father, considers Janie well enough to leave the house. This first excursion onto the streets of LA results in Janie beginning an obsession with Savanna (Sara Malakul Lane). As this obsession progresses, deepens and Janie finally connects with Savanna, the mental calmness and control brought about by the strict, holistic regime is undone.
However, this is just the bare bones of a film that is arguably open to interpretation. For instance, although the time-frame of Sun Choke appears to be linear, I wonder if this is the case. The viewers are shown what appear to be flashbacks, or memories, but these are shown in a haphazard fashion, often with little or no sound. Muted shots of Janie's father illuminated by bright sunlight appear, as do darkly lit scenes of a distressed, apparently psychotic, Janie. Once she begins to leave the home, Janie's apparent inability to feel empathy for other human beings, and her resentment at the strict brutality of the regime she's subjected to, begin to surface. Yet, I personally feel that the route to unravelling the time-line and story of Sun Choke lie in two factors that were mentioned, but not dwelt upon, during the course of the film.
Firstly there is the absent father. The authoritative figure in Sun Choke is Irma and it is her regime which dominates and structures Janie's home environment. There is also the question of what the relationship was between Janie's mother and Irma the nanny, also how this influences the relationship between Irma and Janie. Then, when Janie's obsession with Savanna arises, so does the question of nature over nurture. But, this is just my thoughts on a film which is layered, and definitely more complex, than the bare narrative bones suggest.
Cinematically Sun Choke is a triumph on a big screen. The manner in which light is used throughout, results in some beautiful shots that linger in the mind. Editing is slick and efficient meaning that, despite the sudden flashbacks and apparent memory recalls, the flow of the film isn't disrupted. Somehow, the combination of lighting, beautifully staged sets and Irma's calm voice, seduces the viewer into accepting her role as carer, into accepting the simple, almost unstructured, story that is there for viewing with immediacy.
There was one scene where I felt the director should have held back, as what the viewer is exposed to serves to detract from the impact of the film's final section. I personally felt the scene could have ended slightly earlier, as the viewer knows what is about to happen. I wonder if here the director was trying to appeal to a bigger market than a psychological drama alone would engage. There is a manner of horror in Sun Choke, but it's insidious and deserves to remain so. From my point of view, the scene in question spoilt the ambiance of the film ? it was out of kilter.
Sarah Hagan's performance as Janie is superb. She gives a very powerful depiction of a person totally unable to relate normally with other human beings. Even so, Janie isn't a character you can completely turn away from. I found I had some level of understanding for her frustration at being subjugated by the regime she was subjected to. Savanna is the perfect foil to measure Janie against. Sara Malakul Lane does well in this role. She underplays the character which serves to emphasise her normality. But by far the most chilling performance is that given by Barbara Crampton. Her interpretation of Irma is well judged and effective.
Sun Choke is arguably an Art House film. It is low budget, visually stunning to watch, and contains aspects of social realism. The lack of clarity in the narrative structure will be an issue for some, as there is no clear beginning, middle or end. The audience is presented with a form of cause and effect visualised as actions and consequences. Also, it is for the viewer to determine a pathway through the visual imagery Sun Choke presents, also to unravel the motives contained within the actions of its key players. A film of this nature will either engage you, or it will not. There is no room for middle ground here.