Studio: XLrator Media
Director: Ben Cresciman
Writer: Ben Cresciman
Producer: Georg Kallert, Peter J. Nieves, Rob Schroeder
Stars: Sarah Hagan, Sara Malakul Lane, Barbara Crampton
A young woman suffering from a mental breakdown defies her tormenting caretaker to fulfill an obsession with a beautiful stranger.
Ever since her mental disorder led to a violent emotional breakdown, Janie has been confined like an imprisoned patient inside her father’s Hollywood hillside home. With Dad traveling abroad, the troubled girl’s care is entrusted to Irma, a surrogate maternal figure serving as a pseudo-holistic healer who subjects Janie to a painful daily regimen as part of her bizarre treatment program.
Janie suffers through enough yoga therapy and auditory agony to earn herself a shore leave of sorts in the form of unsupervised free time. Spying an attractive woman named Savannah on one of her street-roaming excursions, Janie’s outside-the-house hours quickly become an opportunity to indulge in a newfound obsession with stalking. As Janie’s fixation on Savannah intensifies, Irma’s dominance weakens, and all three women are suddenly positioned on dangerous paths whose colliding destinations will be determined by Janie’s unstable mind.
“Sun Choke” belongs to that rare subset of psychological thrillers with inexplicably ethereal qualities that had me questioning my reaction to it upon exiting the theater. I felt confident that the experience was enjoyable, although I was unable to articulate why. The pace was noticeably slow, yet my attention never diverted from the screen. I was uncertain if I fully understood the movie’s meaning, but its artistry could not be shaken from memory. Clearly I connected to the film in some way, though an inability to precisely process initial thoughts left me wondering if I appreciated “Sun Choke” more than I should have, or not as much as it deserved.
Writer/director Ben Cresciman’s debut feature is deliberately vague regarding story details. Scenes regularly allude to events and to actions in unspecific ways, such as not directly declaring Janie’s illness, Irma’s exact relationship to Janie’s family, or even whether Savannah is a previous acquaintance or just a random object of infatuation. How many vignettes depicting Janie’s past are flashbacks? How many are hallucinations? When Janie has an out of body experience enabling self-observation, which of the two women is the real Janie, if either one of them is at all?
The schizophrenic storytelling may be giving an appearance of more layers than the film actually possesses. Even so, each existing reason to be frustrated with how “Sun Choke” gradually burrows beneath the skin through ambiguity is also a reason to be fascinated by its unconventional style.
“Sun Choke” is firm from the outset that telling a linear narrative is a secondary priority to creating a mesmeric mindscape of a movie. Cresciman might classify his experiment in daylight horror as a personality study, but really it is an exercise in executing on cerebral atmosphere.
While Mathew Rudenberg’s dreamlike cinematography makes an indelible impression from intentionally minimalist production design, striking performances further anchor the film in a uniquely hypnotic tone. With only three primary actresses driving a character-focused movie, casting is critical. In that respect, “Sun Choke” scores a hat trick.
Sarah Hagan’s distinct girl-next-door look is perfect for the part of Janie. Her presence suggests fearsome and fragile simultaneously, like a tender eggshell protecting a volcanic yolk waiting for any small fracture to give way to an eruption. Infusing experience is veteran genre actress Barbara Crampton as shadily motivated caretaker Irma. The black comedy campiness of a decapitated head performing oral sex fades further into memory in the face of a fierce performance unlike anything seen from her before. Sara Malakul Lane has less to do than Hagan and Crampton, though her point on the triangle of role importance and acting ability is no less sharp than the other two.
Although “Sun Choke” appears female-focused, gender is largely irrelevant in terms of the greater themes appearing onscreen. Influenced by films such as “Repulsion,” “Dogtooth,” and Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” filmmaker Ben Cresciman is out to convey the idea of horror as an emotional state of mind unencumbered by rules regarding where it can occur, when, and to whom.
“Sun Choke” is similarly unencumbered by preconceived notions of the cinematic language it can use to relate its exploration of how predators select prey. Letting viewers fill in their own blanks to discern an inarguable intention is certain to divide opinions. But it is nearly poetic that the film can be interpreted as being about inescapable obsessions turning rational desires into irrational behavior. Because even with an indeterminate agenda and disjointed story structure, “Sun Choke” has a difficult-to-pinpoint quality that makes it strangely inescapable from the mind.
Review Score: 70