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There are two kinds of mental health facilitators in the movies: the good kind, who honestly work to improve the well-being of the character in need, such as Robin Williams‘ Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. Then there are the not-so-good kind, who tend to take up most of the roles in the genre, a twisted bunch who play mind games and cause more significant damage to their characters in need than when they first started. With Sun Choke, it is the second kind, and it takes the concept to a secondary level of disturbing. Here is a doctor that is trying to make her patient worse.
Janie (Sarah Hagan) has spent much her young life in therapy, coping with a number of psychological issues that have stunted her emotionally as well as socially. This psychotic break is treated by her life long holistic health caretaker and nanny Irma (Barbara Crampton), who uses a variety of unorthodox treatments to improve her well being. When Janie does shows signs of balance, Irma allows Janie, who is still clearly a little unstable, to leave their isolated home in the Hollywood Hills for a short time in order to get more comfortable with life on her own.
On one of these daily outings, she sees a young woman driving in the opposite direction and is somehow struck by her appearance, turning the car around and following. Something clicks with her and an obsession is triggered. She sneaks around her house, peers into her windows, watches her have sex, and sleeps outside her driveway. The woman, soon introduces herself as Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), and this only exacerbates the dilemma as Janie spirals ever further into darkness, betrayal, and violence.
Written and directed by Ben Cresciman, Sun Choke is an arresting experience, a daring, provocative and often shocking film that is as terrifying as it is beautiful. Cresciman toys with our patience, spending long moments of quiet contemplative agony while we watch Janie under Irma’s unusually harsh methods, before careening into abject horror, both of which work on deep, unnerving levels, keeping us on edge throughout. This is a story of control, about mastering the master, and is uncompromising from frame one as Cresciman ramps up the psychological horror as each moment passes.
The best in this genre play with expectations, tasking us to look beyond the absolutes of what we see and project a larger meaning. We learn slowly who Janie is and what has happened in her life to reach this end, and as we do, we are forced to constantly re-interpret who the other characters are as well and what role they play in her breakdown.
Filmed mostly like a stage play, it is basically three women within the walls of a glass house, and the journey for each is marked by stages in Janie’s mental collapse. Crampton, who many might remember from classic 80s horror and thriller films, such as Body Double, Re-Animator, and Chopping Mall, is a chilling menace whose motives remains ambiguous as she strives to drive Janie to imbalance. Lane is also good in a mostly dialog-free role that sees her become a subject to Janie’s increasingly disturbing behavior.
But this is Hagan’s movie, in a performance that is equal parts sympathetic and balls-to-the wall horrifying. While we continually guess as to what is real and what is not, Hagan stands as the film’s greatest strength, drawing us in with a strange kind of other-worldly magnetism. Is she a victim or is she monster?
Sun Choke is a quietly uneasy film that is nothing short of a small masterpiece. An acting tour-de-force from Hagan is reason enough to watch, but it is the mystery behind the action that drives this to its heights. We can’t possibly trust what we are seeing, as events unfold in very specific ways, some characters never meet, and scenes always have ways of doubling back. To be sure, it has moments of surprising horror, but each has a weighted meaning all their own. Watching Sun Choke, you will have questions, and that alone makes this a great film.
Movie description: Sun Choke is a 2016 thriller about a women trying to recover from a traumatic mental incident struggling to cope under an unusual therapeutic treatment.
Director(s): Ben Cresciman
Actor(s): Sarah Hagan, Barbara Crampton, Sara Malakul Lane
Genre: Drama, Thriller