Sun Choke (2015)

Sun Choke first published by

“It’s not a punishment. The rules were put in place for your protection, little girl. Everything we do, we do for you to get better… and you’ll feel so much better after.”

The speaker is Irma (Barbara Crampton, Re-Animator, We Are Still Here, Road Games), a neatly dressed woman who oversees, calmly but sternly, a regime of peculiar activities for her ward Janie (Sarah Hagan, Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Within the confines of a luxurious house (with garden and pool) tucked away in the suburban hills of Los Angeles, Janie submits herself to a relentless routine of yogic exercises, specially concocted drinks, hypnosis and children’s logic puzzles – indeed, this young woman, still addressed as ‘little girl’ in Irma’s matronising cadence, comes across as utterly infantilised, whether a captive of her environment, or of something more interior. Janie’s surroundings, idyllic in appearance, are a menacing kind of prison to her, reechoing at night with watery sounds that seem more than just bad plumbing.

Indeed, the first third of Sun Choke is devoted to laying out the odd, ambiguous dynamic between Irma and Janie, as we try to work out if they are controlling mother and abused daughter, or an older and younger woman in a BDSM relationship. Neither of these is in fact quite right – and as the film progresses, Irma’s sinister conduct will turn out genuinely to have been in Janie’s interests. For if ‘housekeeper’ Irma has created in this elegant home an atmosphere of order and balance, Janie is an agent of chaos, constantly testing her boundaries and trying to regain her autonomy – even if she has no proper understanding of who she herself is.

The titular phrase ‘sun choke’ – an alternative term for the Jerusalem artichoke – is twice used by Irma as a sort of safe word as she attempts to ‘retune’ Janie when she has been acting out – but it also alludes to the contrast between the film’s bright, sunny settings, and the oppressive chokehold (metaphorical, and eventually literal) that Irma exercises over Janie. Both, in their way, are prisoners – and letting Janie off the leash a little will turn out to be no solution to their predicament.

As a reward for good behaviour, Janie is released from her house arrest and allowed, for short periods, to venture alone into the city. She immediately fixates – like a newborn animal  imprinting on its mother – on Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), a free spirit who is everything Janie is not. From this moment on, a strange kind of projection and transference occurs, as Janie shifts her focus from mother substitute Irma, and tries instead to locate her own elusive self in the oblivious Savannah. Things will not end well.

In the house’s back garden, Janie regularly observes the progress of a bird’s nest – until, that is, as she lies prone on the ground below, the eggs fall out of the tree and crack open, revealing the partially developed chicks within. It is a metaphor for Janie herself who, ever since getting ‘stuck’ as a baby during the breach birth which killed her mother, has been a broken person and a bad egg, always reemerging in different versions, but never fully out or ‘well’. As Janie hunts endlessly for images of both her missing mother and herself, she tries to project both onto the hapless Savannah, whom she treats in much the same way as she has been treated by Irma. “You used to do the same thing when you were a baby,” Irma tells Janie. “If you thought something was yours, you wouldn’t give it up for anything.” Unfortunately for Savannah, now that Janie has claimed her as her own, she will not give her up either.

“Janie’s just trying to get well”, reads the tagline for Sun Choke, written and directed by Ben Cresciman. This is something of an understatement – for while the film certainly does concern a woman’s attempts, shown in part from within her own distorted subjectivity, to find a way out of a long-term dissociative disorder, it is also an artfully elliptical study of female identity in extremis, akin to Ingrid Bergman’s Persona (1966) or Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), with a bit of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009) thrown in. If the house is a womb-like space from which egress is always constrained, then the recurrent imagery of water and blood points to a character who is forever inchoate and forever being engendered in a messy rebirthing of her primal scene. From this claustrophobic crucible of self-realisation and self-annihilation where Janie struggles to become herself, Cresciman has constructed a puzzle that is shimmeringly beautiful, if also tense and hallucinatory. The patterns and symmetries which Cresciman imposes on the structure of his film are like Irma’s ‘rules’, offsetting and ordering Janie’s defects and disturbances until they conform, messily, to a kind of perfection – without ever being fully contained. The results are powerful and disturbing.

Summary: Madness and motherlessness rule and unravel in Ben Cresciman’s beautifully disturbing study of dissociation.

© Anton Bitel