While watching Sun Choke, most of my time was spent searching for some deeper meaning. It’s an obvious character piece about mental breakdowns and imprisoned healing, but I kept digging for hidden messages amongst all the holistic babbling. But as the film winded down, and tensions reached a boil, it became obvious that everyone was fighting for one constant theme – control.
A deranged woman struggles to control her violent outbursts, a homely caretaker attempts to control her unpredictable patient, and then said patient goes rogue when she cannot suppress her inner-actions anymore. Bad things happen, power shifts, and we witness an ever-changing dynamic between three clashing personalities – everything Ben Cresciman intends to play out, with no overwhelming backstory.
Sarah Hagan stars as a disturbed young woman (Margo or Janie, depending on who she’s talking to, but really Janie), who finds herself under the care of an older therapist/mentor (Irma, played by Barbara Crampton). We learn that Janie suffered from an erratic outburst, and her father ordered Irma to expel the negative energies flowing through her body. By keeping Janie on a strict regiment of yoga, juice cleansing and other relaxation methods, Irma hopes to clear her patient’s mind of any violent thoughts. This works for a while, until Janie is granted permission to leave the house, and she becomes obsessed with a beautiful neighbor (Savannah, played by Sara Malakul Lane). As Janie’s stalking habit worsens, all the mantras Irma instilled slowly drift away, along with her wafer-thin sanity…
Sun Choke begins after Janie has been brought to Irma for treatment, so we start on a very sedate version of Hagan’s performance. There’s no comparison point to earlier aggression, only focusing on a channeled core that’s embraced by revitalizing chakras and blessed beams of light. By doing so, Cresciman is then able to slowly pull out the dark, twisted voices that push Janie to do vile things, as to shock viewers around each turn. We’re not truly understanding of what Janie is capable of until it’s too late, which helps weight plot twists with a certain kind of curious intensity. We believe only what we see, uninfluenced by Janie’s troubled past.
The chemistry between Hagan and Barbara Crampton is downright bewitching, in a cold, sci-fi-experiment kind of way. Crampton plays the part of healer – instructing Hagan through what she believes are factual steps towards absolution – while Hagan assumes the role of abiding pupil. Yet, it’s the little things that suggest two false fronts being put up by both actresses, like when Crampton calmly tells Hagan to drink more water, then holds the bottle upright until she’s practically drowning.
Cresciman’s influences are rooted in conspiracy pieces where everything seems bright and cheery at first glance, but we sniff out the bullshit immediately. Anticipation builds as the two actresses hold back their true forms, snowballing momentum until neither party can fake it no more. Back and forth the seesaw tips, displaying a seething power-struggle that’s hidden behind polite voices, straight-talking and Hagan’s eventual plunge into her unhinged finality.
Cresciman’s artful eye calls to light may of the undercurrent themes that flow subtlety through Sun Choke, hinting at Janie’s moody core without saying a single word. Flashes of light form a focusing ring that remind of Terrence Malick, while cutaways to liquid-red pools foreshadow brewing anger. Cinematographer Mathew Rudenberg brandishes a very wispy, transcendental lens when Irma is rambling about “being a puddle, not its reflection,” and even more so when Janie addresses her relationship with Savannah while floating in a watery dreamscape. When scenes broach seriousness, restraint reigns in more flowery technical aspects, but when “at peace,” Cresciman paints his characters with an enlightened, almost cult-like brush that turns robotic appearances into whimsical terror. Careful, but ambitious and provocative.
Sun Choke is an experience, not a full story. We connect with Janie only for a brief amount of time, and witness a mere sampling of what Cresciman’s subject is capable of. No long-winded introduction. No wrap-up ending. Just a dissection of isolation, unfortunate circumstances and obsession that represents a single slice of a bigger pie we don’t necessarily need. Not every film can achieve success through small-picture thinking, but this is one example that does more than squeak by, even if some unanswered questions could have used just a bit of exposition – but Cresciman succeeds, and that’s all that matters.
Sun Choke succeeds in telling a small-scale story with tons of interest, abandoning typical plot structures in favor of genuine discovery.