Sun Choke. 2016. Directed & Written by Ben Cresciman.
Starring Sarah Hagan, Barbara Crampton, Sara Malakul Lane, Jim Boeven, Evan Jones, Riley Litman, William Nicol, Joe Nieves, & Daisy O’Dell.
Lodger Films/Easy Open Productions.
83 minutes. Not Rated.
Disclaimer: This discussion contains large spoilers pertaining to the end of the film and its (possible) meaning(s). If you haven’t seen the film, please go watch it. Then come back and tell me what you think.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Sun Choke. Some films leave you with those nagging questions, the burning desire to know more. That might piss certain people off. And in certain cases, it pisses me off. When you don’t get enough answers it isn’t always bad. But when nothing adds up it’s hard to say a movie was any good. Long as some of the mystery filters through.
Sun Choke is the story of a young woman named Janie (Sarah Hagan from Freaks and Geeks) who undergoes radically intense treatments for her mental health, cared for by a woman she’s had as a nanny her whole life, Irma (Barbara Crampton). As the treatment gets more extreme, Janie seems not to get better but to go deeper into whatever psychosis has gripped her. Recovering from a trauma, a nebulous piece of her life to the viewer, Janie struggles on the edge of utter insanity.
This is not at all an outright horror, nor is it squarely a drama, or a mystery, or a thriller. It’s a psychological horror, a character study of co-dependency and how the will to try curing another person doesn’t always leave the person helping, or the one they’re trying to help, in any better shape than they were before. This film won’t give you all the answers, it doesn’t even particularly ask all its own questions, leaving that heavy lifting to the audience. Rightfully so.
Maybe it’ll frustrate you. Either way, Sun Choke ought to leave you with plenty to mull over in your head; for better or for worse.
There’s so much going that you might find, at times, the story is hard to follow. It isn’t deliberately sly in that Cresciman doesn’t want you NOT to understand. He employs a non-linear story, flashing now and then between past/present, while also keeping certain details from us. In this sense, being hard to follow shouldn’t make you feel stupid. Cresciman saves revelations for later. Instead of how some movies like to repeatedly hit you with twist after twist, this screenplay doesn’t come at you taht way. It milks the tension and suspense for all it’s worth.
The tension comes from this up close and disturbingly personal character study of Janie. Gradually, we unravel the layers of mystery surrounding the psychological state we find her in, and what brought her to the supremely tragic point of emotional fragility from which we begin the film’s journey. There’s an interesting aspect to Janie because she’s our protagonist, while at once we’re privy to the uncomfortable side of her as a character, too. her obsession gets to a frightening height, which in turn is psychosexual in the most visceral way experiencing the lowest moments of Janie’s transgressions.
“I just want what‘s best for you, little girl.”
Ultimately, the suspense and tension involved in these sequences when Sadie oversteps boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour can often reach unbearable levels. I wouldn’t call this a regular horror. No, it’s all the way one hell of a psychological trip, rooted in character study. Hagan’s central performance as Janie is one of the best this year, independent film or otherwise: a fearless and simultaneously fearful role where she plays wounded in addition to being the one that created many of her own wounds. Her performance is aided by Cresciman’s writing, placing his viewer alongside Janie in a horrific headspace, further leading us to physical one filled with terror by the end.
“Little girls are all fucking hateful”
Let’s leave the unexplained as unexplained, for now. What do we know? Irma (the ever awesome genre star Crampton) has been the housekeeper/nanny for Janie since her mother died, and we get the feeling that’s been a long, long time (note: I’m under the impression the mother died during child birth due to the ending). They’re close like family and it’s also very evident they’re not family, as well. But Irma holds power over Janie, as a caretaker. A large part of the plot deals with co-dependence, the idea of one person as host and the other a figurative virus, living and feeding off them. What becomes clear over the course of the film is that Janie has issues with her identity, something reoccurring in several scenes (like when Irma stands her by the mirror and asks: “Who do you see?”). Something else painfully obvious is that Janie really should be in a hospital. She had a violent outbreak at a certain point, shown in a horrific, brief moment of rage and some blood, so the trauma to her psyche is very real. No matter what happened to her before, it is real, whatever’s going on inside her mind. And the fact Irma treats her, in strange ways – like using a tuning fork and whispering “Sun choke” in Janie’s ear – only serves Janie for the worse. She does not get better, only learning how to foster a greater sense of dependency; on Irma, later on a woman named Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane).
This is the point where the story speaks volumes as to the endgame of its plot. See, Janie can’t gain control of herself. She can’t fixate on a proper identity. First, she tries becoming Savannah. She finds the man Savannah had sex with, then crawls into bed with him. That is, until she decides on caving his skull in. Worth noting: during this scene, she is both on top of the man and seeing herself looking in through the window. When she figures out there’s no becoming someone else, that she is stuck with herself, Janie goes to further lengths to find control: she decides to control Savannah.
But through it all we can’t forget the odd, often sadistic methods of healing Irma tries forcing on Janie. Every treatment, the girl takes it, as if also expecting it to heal her. Her subservience to others eventually manifests in her taking back control with terrifying results.
“The only thing standing between you and the abyss is how much I love you”
Throughout there are fascinating visuals. These relate directly to the idea of a dissociation from the self, re: Janie. She continually gets further from her own identity, which is shown best via the cinematography and chosen shots. Such as the shot while she’s having sex with the man and she’s also a double, outside her own self, another identity. There are a couple mirrored shots, reflections, and they allow us to get a visual window into the separation happening in her head.
Sun Choke comes at you with a mixed bag of treats. Not that any of them are bad; merely mixed. There’s a weaving of genres, all leading back to psychological horror. We get intense drama, then in unexpected splashes blood flicks across the screen, jarring the viewer because of its randomness. The screenplay helps, the story doesn’t twist and turn. Rather it sort of unfolds its mysteries one by one, revealing only portions to reel us in wherever possible. It’s the suspense of watching Janie struggle, between psychosis and a health regimen of inexplicable treatments, that drives so much of the film’s gruesome excitement.
By the finale, you may either hate or love the movie. Maybe some of it is entire delusion. Maybe all the events are reality. Cresciman straddles a line where you may never know exactly what’s going on, if it’s real or something in Janie’s imagination (or just in her past), but as director and writer he maintains a level of interest, compelling the viewer to keep going, to find out what lies beneath the trauma of Janie. There’s no set meaning, for any art. Authorial intent is one thing; what the audience concludes is another. All I know is that Sun Choke has captivated me. I’ve seen it twice now and both times I’m left with questions. The sort which make me want to watch it again.