Dir: Ben Cresciman
Sun Choke is a film as striking as its title (which may be the most evocative of this year's Frightfest). It plays its twists close to the chest, never quite giving up all of its mysteries. Some of the rabbits that director Ben Cresciman pulls from his hat are not unexpected, but it's hard to mind all that much as he pulls together stylish visuals and two outstanding central performances.
We first meet Janie (Sarah Hagan, who you'll likely recognise as one of the 'Potentials' from season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and should seek out in the outstanding Jess + Moss) as she is going through, apparently for the umpteenth time, a series of psychological tests administered by Irma (legendary scream queen Barbara Crampton), who seems to be part unconventional therapist, part stepmother. Janie appears to be recovering from a trauma that resulted in violence, but is doing well, so well that she is allowed out of the house for the first time in a year. On her first trip out Janie sees Savannah (Sarah Malakul Lane), and becomes obsessed.
Cresciman never lets us see clearly what Janie did little to land herself under apparent house arrest. There are flashes of a violent scene, but whether we can even be sure that it was real, either in detail or in broader terms, is very much up for debate, even given where the film goes in its third act. It would be easy to see Janie as an equivalent of the 'children' in Dogtooth; imprisoned in a world partly of their making, partly moulded for them from the outside, in this case the battle for us as an audience seems to be unpicking which aspects of Jamie's world are driven by her problems, perhaps even her psychosis, and which have been drummed in to her.
These ideas and questions come through strongly in the performances of Sarah Hagan and Barbara Crampton. Crampton's icily withdrawn nurse/surrogate parent is different from anything I've seen her do before. Irma insists to Janie that she loves and is trying to do the best for her, but she never seems more detached, more passionless, than in these moments. The question of why this is always remains fraught; answers perhaps glimpsed in brief, often overexposed, flashbacks, but when we see Janie essentially being tortured for staying out past her curfew, it's easy to imagine that these flashbacks are not real, or at least not the full story.
Of course Janie is hardly blameless. Hagan is also detached in her performance, but she strikes a different register than Crampton; not icy but longing. Janie clearly longs to be less detached, something we see in the way she fixates on what appears to be an entirely random woman, among the first people she sees on her first trip outside the house in a year. These sequences become increasingly tense as Janie seems to become ever more fixated and unhinged. Most chilling is a sequence in which Janie breaks in to Savannah's house and takes a shower, allowing Savannah to realise someone has been there. Little happens, but it's fingernails down the blackboard tense. Hagan is remarkable in these scenes, even in their most extreme and calculated moments of violence, she puts Janie's sadness front and centre, making us feel a perverse level of sympathy for her, even as the film enters its third act.
The third act is where Sara Malakul Lane's Savannah becomes more than a beautiful prop for Janie to desire, in ways that are perhaps not what you would first assume unless, like me, you are a fan of a certain tawdry but well acted early 90's thriller. Savannah's lack of development in the early part of the film is one of its weaker aspects, but Lane makes for an effective and sympathetic damsel in distress and, with her doll like prettiness, a credible object of Janie's instant desire. Beyond the role's exposing nature though, she's not especially stretched. On the other hand, Hagan's shift from a withdrawn but sympathetic character to a silently steely one (perhaps taking on some of Irma's attributes) is well handled by the actress and only makes her performance more intensely creepy. With the build and the payoff, Cresciman manages to achieve an intriguing mix of the scary and the sad, which gives Sun Choke a tone that sets it apart from its influences.
The film marks out Sarah Hagan as a fearless performer of great promise, hers is one of the best performances by a lead actress this year. Sun Choke also proves again that Barbara Crampton always had more to offer than being the decorative scream queen. I'm glad she's getting to show that now. This isn't a flawless film, but it is never less than gripping and the central performances transcend its few weaker moments. It will be interesting to see where Ben Cresciman goes from here.