THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Sun Choke is not technically a horror movie, although it could certainly be considered one. There are no monsters, no creatures, no demons. There are just ordinary people caught in bad situations that become increasingly extreme. Writer/director Ben Crescimen has made a film that explores mental health issues, power struggles, and the dangers of giving one person control over another. The story rattles you as you watch it, but becomes truly disturbing later on, when you can't get it out of your mind.
Sarah Hagan (known and loved by many for her portrayal of Millie Kentner on Freaks and Geeks) plays Janie, a young woman who is recovering from a psychotic break. Rather than getting professional help, she's been left under the care of her former nanny, Irma (Barbara Crampton). Irma puts Janie though a strict regimen of questionable-looking therapeutic exercises. Mostly, they involve Janie submitting to whatever Irma deems acceptable. (The film is intentionally vague about these practices, presumably to heighten their creepiness.) After improving enough to venture out in public, Janie becomes obsessed with Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), a stranger she has a chance encounter with. The repercussions of this seriously displease Irma, and what follows is a steady descent into the personal hell of Janie's fragile state of mind.
Sun Choke tells its story in an impressionist style. Short bursts of rapid editing, lighting effects, and image distortions help us to see things through Janie's eyes. That assists the movie in getting to its most potent theme: the absolute importance of seeking appropriate help for someone suffering from mental illness. Diagnoses like psychosis are often misunderstood by the general public. Treating someone who suffers from them might seem like “common sense,” but it's far more complex than that. Other times, people think there's a stigma in having mental illness or being related to someone who does, so they try to take care of it at home.
In many respects, the scariest element of the story is the way we watch Janie decompensate because she doesn't have the right help. Her grasp on reality erodes to the point where she becomes dangerous to herself and to others. That's where the quasi-horror element comes in. What happens is ghastly, but the fact that we know it all could have been avoided had Janie been properly treated makes it particularly frightening. Sun Choke takes its subject to extremes to create moments that are chilling.
The performances here are superb. Sarah Hagan brings an authentic dissociated quality to Janie, a character who hasn't been allowed to think for herself in a long time and is trying to block some things out anyway. At first, she seems kind of blank, but as the story progresses, Hagan reveals deeper, darker layers to the character that make you care for her, even when she's at her most troubled. Barbara Crampton (who's on a tremendous roll lately, with Beyond the Gates, Road Games, and We Are Still Here) wisely takes a low-key approach, playing Irma not as an evil person, but as somebody who started out with good intentions and ended up going way too far. That makes her eerier than a character who's clearly, intentionally malicious. It also helps set up the power struggle between Irma and Janie. The former thinks she needs to exert control, while the latter no longer desires to be under someone else's thumb.
Sun Choke could have clarified some things about its plot earlier on. It takes almost half an hour before you discover the connection between Janie and Irma, for instance. Other story points needed more definition, e.g. the hows and whys of Janie being left in Irma's care and where the latter came across her techniques.
In fairness, though, there are many layers to Sun Choke, meaning that repeat viewings might bring more clarity on those issues. And even on a first viewing, there's sufficient understanding to generate hardcore psychological suspense. This is a beautifully-acted movie that probes some of the darker elements of the human psyche with style and undeniable scariness.
( out of four)
Sun Choke is unrated, but contains extreme violence, language, and full frontal nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 23 minutes.
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