One would think that psychological horror and experimental filmmaking could go hand-in-hand. One involves imagery and scenes that prey on the audience’s mind rather than being gross or shocking, the other invites different approaches to showing audiences certain story elements. But how far can a filmmaker go when playing with the audience before the story gets blurred by the mind games?
Sun Choke follows Janie (Sarah Hagan), a timid and quiet girl surrounded by the white décor of her California home and pampered by her longtime nanny, Irma (Barbara Crampton). At least that’s what it looks like at first, but Janie is being watched by Irma and kept under a strict (and strange) health regiment. Janie has deep psychological demons that are kept at bay by Irma’s near-ruthless treatments, but Janie sees a beautiful stranger (Sara Malakul Lane) that she can’t get out of her head.
Writer/director Ben Cresciman (Negative Space) doesn’t keep things entirely literal in Sun Choke, never revealing the specifics of Janie’s condition or what exactly Irma’s role is until later in the film. That’s smart to keep the audience guessing in certain situations as Irma alternates between loving mother-figure and menacing manipulator of the fragile Janie, who herself is an enigma until the last twenty minutes. However, Cresciman fills those gaps of exposition with shots of Janie’s wide-eyed curiosity exploring the home or shots that strive for The Tree of Life but feel more like a nature documentary. While it’s trying to add more to the atmosphere, most of the time it feels like an attempt to stretch the movie to its 83-minute runtime. In fact, the most interesting parts of the story are when Janie goes outside the house to test how sane she is in the outside world. Cresciman becomes even more fascinated with his lead character as she follows this outside girl, trying to use her as a model to fill the emptiness she feels inside. He builds on that from innocence to obsession and cranks up the crazy in the last half hour. While it doesn’t make up for the padding of the first half of the movie, it does create genuine suspense to see how the whole thing will play out.
Watching the two leads bring out the tensions is sick and fun as hell. Hagan plays Janie as fragile as a China doll, but not too twee to be annoying or uninteresting. She puts something seriously damaged behind those kind eyes and soft voice, making even her most timid moments onscreen interesting. Crampton’s character appears to be the manifestation of Janie’s demons tearing her apart, and Crampton does a fine job of being as intimidating as a ravenous beast. Her cold gaze and twisted determination to save Janie from herself provides for some truly disturbing scenes, specifically when Janie tries to remove her shock collar. At times a cat-and-mouse game of brains and other times an evaluation of dependent relationships, Hagan and Crampton are talents that barely break a sweat while trying to break each other.
Both for better and worse, Sun Choke doesn’t spell anything out for anyone. It makes for great bursts of character development and disturbing imagery, but it’s stuffed in between pointless imagery that act to distract from the main plot. Cresciman has an idea but doesn’t want to go down the typical path of delivering it on film, which is fine. But perhaps he could learn how to show it a little better or tell it a little sharper instead of just shrugging his shoulders and asking, “what do YOU think?”