Film Pulse Score

Sun Choke
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Release Date: August 5, 2016 (Limited and VOD)
Director: Ben Cresciman
MPAA Rating: NR
Run Time: 83 Minutes

At its start, Ben Cresciman’s Sun Choke plays to very common fears – those of being ill, trapped under the domineering control of another person, and not knowing the true motivations of that caretaker. And then there are different terrors exploited, as the film’s scope widens and moves from a sterilized mansion in the Hollywood Hills to the streets below – a sense of recklessness, of a lack of self-control, a gradual spiraling into the loss of one’s grasp on reality.

Artists have exploited these emotions for centuries, and it’s always a treat to see them depicted in new ways. Cresciman takes a decidedly minimalist approach to this concept, mostly choosing to execute his plot from a slate as cleanly linear as its initial (and final) setting. It’s a gripping hour and a half, at once obedient to the conventions and fixtures one expects from a thriller about a mentally troubled protagonist and fully prepared to careen into the darkness when it comes to the details of how the film goes about navigating its narrative path.

Sarah Hagan stars as Janie, a woman in her early twenties who is slowly recovering from a mental breakdown. She is under the care of a therapist named Irma (Barbara Crampton), confined to the grounds of the aforementioned estate. Irma’s methods are deeply questionable. She puts herself in control of every aspect of Janie’s life, a rigorous and rhythmic schedule of mental and physical exercises.

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Eventually, as her patient’s condition seemingly improves, Irma allows Janie some autonomy. But as our main character verges beyond the dictatorship of one, we learn that Janie’s instability has not been cured, but merely suppressed. When she becomes obsessed with Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), a young woman about her own age, it’s only a matter of time until her violent behavior returns, in the form of confrontations, which quickly grow in aggression. Despite Irma’s increasingly draconian attempts to close back in on Janie, it’s clear that the damage has been done and that things will only get worse from here on out.

While the plot of Sun Choke appears to be rather drastic – seemingly ready to become big, punchy and stark at any moment – the movie embraces the more sparse and cerebral grounds of the psychological drama. You can count on one hand the number of times in which the film suspends its tightly wound restraint and gives into the primitivism that people, for better or worse, associate with the horror genre.

Cresciman doesn’t divide his screenplay between the two stylistic approaches, so these brief diversions into the grittier, gorier stuff are surprising and effective. His otherwise spare approach to the material is just enticing enough to keep the viewer engaged in speculation. Nervously unanswered questions in the first act are never forgotten, either by the film or by the viewer, and their resolution at the movie’s climax is a well rounded payoff.

Sun Choke is also blessed with solid lead performances. Tasked with anchoring the film, Sarah Hagan provides an intriguing interpretation, bridging that gap between showing confusion and insanity without becoming incoherent. Hagan succeeds in the unsettling effect of allowing the viewer a glimpse into Janie’s madness, almost to the point of some kind of twisted understanding.

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It’s a joy to watch her play opposite Barbara Crampton, who gleefully chews the scenery away in her role as Janie’s corrupted guardian, making a startling transition from a simply eccentric woman to a sadist in very little time. Sara Malakul Lane isn’t given much to do in terms of emotional range, although she is more than able to hold her own when the dynamic between Savannah and Janie takes a turn for the worst.

In totality, Cresciman offers us a swift, daft glimpse at his subject matter, forgoing depth or philosophy in exchange for surface-level emotion. Considering the film’s brief runtime, this works, in essence, but leaves one with a hunger for something more substantive, especially after a stacked finale, which makes fleeting bypasses into deeper themes and ideas, as Janie’s ambiguous history is slowly brought to light.

Nevertheless, Sun Choke offers its own unique pleasures, encapsulated largely in the strength of the actors, as well as Cresciman’s ability to slowly build and then quickly unravel the story, keeping the motion going until he has built it so high that it unleashes a controlled demolition of mammoth proportions. It is then when Janie allows her hermetically sealed world to be infiltrated by an outsider, colliding her demons with unchecked irrationality and releasing a wave of chaos that is not to be forgotten.

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