Recovering from a violent psychotic break, Janie is just trying to get well under the care of her lifelong nanny and caretaker. She begins to veer off the road to recovery when she develops an obsession with a young woman to whom she feels an inexplicable yet profound connection. The obsession turns increasingly invasive, and wedges all three women into an ever-tightening, and progressively terrifying struggle for control.
Following 2011’s Negative Space, writer-director Ben Cresciman hones in on the psychological backlash of confinement and solitude in his second feature, Sun Choke.
Steeped in psychological connotations and hypnagogic aesthetics, Cresciman’s ambiguous and opaque portrait is condemned to polarize audiences but, for me at least, the film’s sophistry amplifies the intrigue a hundred-fold to create an all-arresting piece of cinema.
As you exit the foyer you’ll still be scratching your noggins as to exactly how and why Sarah Hagan’s character ended up in her isolated predicament but I think Cresciman made a wise choice to peel back only just enough of the back-story to keep the audience on tenterhooks, and nothing more. Also, the interactions between the characters and the “is she dreaming/is she awake” factor are so mesmeric that the film demands repeated viewing and I’m pretty certain Sun Choke will be a perpetual topic of debate and conjectures.
The three leads are pure dynamite: Barbara Crampton is horrifyingly talented, as always, as Irma, the dictatorial holistic health and wellness carer watching over Sarah Hagen’s Janie. I have a hunch her particular yoga stance is about to become a brand new international fad.
Surprisingly, I discovered that Sara Malakul Lane and Sarah Hagan were both originally considered for each other’s roles but I have to say the casting team couldn’t have made a better decision in the end. She may be out of control in Sun Choke but Hagan absolutely commands the screen as the seemingly innocent yet creepily sinister Janie. Meanwhile, Malakul Lane is perfect as the gorgeous and sympathetic Savannah and you can’t help but sympathise with Janie’s obsessions even though you know exactly where they are going to ultimately lead her. There’s also some wondrous chemistry between the two Sara(h)s with one particular standout scene where we find the two of them reciting the exact same dialogue in perfect unison. I can’t even begin to wonder how much preparation went into pulling that scene off and it’s a sight to be enjoyed.
The film also certainly provides more than its fair share of violence and up-front nudity but not once did it feel unwarranted or gratuitous and ultimately it helps the audience slip even further into Janie’s mindset.
Mention must also be made of the stunning cinematography provided by Mathew Rudenberg and also Bryan Hollon’s fantastic soundtrack, both of which intensify the unease to a whole new level.
Sun Choke is a sterling example of a thought-provoking dissection of the psychosocial implications of well-intentioned but ultimately toxic protective care. If more ambiguous, yet wholeheartedly absorbing films akin to Lynch, Polanski and early Aronofsky are up your street then this is one you won’t want to miss.
Words: Howard Gorman (@howardgorman)