Like his feature debut The God Inside My Ear (2017), director/producer Joe Badon’s Sister Tempest (which Badon also co-wrote and co-scored with Jason Kruppa) is a delirious psychodrama in which a woman’s trauma-tinged descent into madness and self-knowledge plays out like multiple overlapping movies in different genres.
“I, Anne Hutchinson, hereby promise you that I will never leave you, that I will always be with you, watching over you, right up until the day you die.” So swears young Anne (Nadia Eiler) to her even younger sister Karen (Aubrey Elise) at their parents’ funeral. Clutching Anne’s hand tight, the titian-haired Karen replies: “And I, Karen Hutchinson, promise that no matter what happens in our lives, we will always and forever be sisters.”
This opening scene in Sister Tempest is an assertion of the orphaned Hutchinsons’ intense sibling bond in the face of wrenching tragedy, in what is to be A Tale of Two Sisters. Divided between playing mother and sister to Karen, even as the model of maternity that she has inherited is itself decidedly dysfunctional, Anne (now played by Kali Russell) has struggled to keep her oath: for not only has her peremptory strictness at home driven a wedge between herself and the now teenaged Karen (Holly Bonney), but Anne’s efforts to put food on the table by working various jobs have also ensured that she is hardly ever there for her sister. Feeling unloved, the rebellious Karen has drifted into the arms of drug dealer Chris (Taylor Guarisco), got pregnant, and vanished after a violent incident – and a distraught Anne has been left to pick up the pieces left behind by Karen’s absence.
In a sense that is the entire plot of Sister Tempest, and its details (with certain notable ellipses) are established very early on in the running time – but Badon’s film is less interested in presenting what has happened than in refracting these events as a mosaic-like kaleidoscope of Anne’s fragmenting mindscape. One early scene shows a 50-foot astronaut stomping a house underfoot, followed by archival footage of a nuclear explosion in the Nevada desert – both oblique ways of illustrating the devastating domestic ruin and toxic fallout created by Karen’s disappearance. Another sequence cuts to a man sitting at his typewriter, tapping out the screenplay of what we are watching (including details of his own scene as ‘The Writer’), before in frustration he screws the page up into a ball and discards it. Anne’s experiences all at once seem drafted by a higher authority, easily erased or rewritten, and self-consciously movie-like. Soon she will appear before a tribunal of aliens (or is it angels?) to give an account – expressly from her own perspective – of her relationship with Karen, even as an “eternal cosmic camera crew” of ‘Xiaolins’ follows her around documenting her every move. Important here are motifs that will recur throughout the film: Anne’s feelings of guilt and anxieties about being judged; and the constant, paranoid sense of being seen, manipulated and storied.
There are aliens aplenty in Sister Tempest, which is categorised, understandably if somewhat misleadingly, by IMDb as sci-fi – but there are even more alienation effects. The narrative is divided into eight formal chapters with headings, and scenes are disorientingly sliced up by Joseph Estrade’s juddery edits, while dislocated noises (sirens, cackling, wailing, cartoon sound effects, etc.) bleed into the action and dialogue. There are cutaways to singing choirs, or animated inserts, or black-and-white file footage, or classically arranged tableaux vivants. There are sudden incursions of masked figures and Nazis. One character speaks only in French, while another has a skeletal hand and an eyepatch. A dream sequence shows Anne being beheaded before a jeering crowd, and then the recovery of her severed head by her own mother (who places it on a dummy). Channel-switching vox poppers offer choral commentary on all the on-screen violence. Both the kaiju and tokusatsu genres find their improbable way into the Louisiana setting. There are strange epiphanies by the mysterious interdimensional Her Majesty (Stella Juleff), by an otherworldly gatekeeper to the cosmos (Collin Galyean in mesmerising form), and by God himself.
The only grounding element to all these mind-melting, freaky-deaky excursions from reality is Jeffrey (Alex Stage), the actual janitor at the ‘Meroposa Art School For Gifted Young Ladies’ where Anne teaches. Clearly harbouring an erotic interest in Anne while being too polite and solicitous to be creepy, Jeffrey checks in every so often on how Anne is coping, and looks out for her, thus anchoring, however momentarily, her psychogenic fugue to his own stability.
Club MC Jason Johnson (playing himself) introduces a karaoke act on stage with the words: “I’m gonna show you something new tonight, something ethereal, something trippy, something you haven’t ever seen before.” His words might as well be describing Sister Tempest itself, but in their immediate context they refer specifically to the film’s other main character, Ginger Breadman (Linnea Gregg, star of The God Inside My Ear). Ginger’s very forename both marks her as a double for redhead Karen, and combines with the surname Breadman to suggest her status as a mere confection.
Ginger joins Anne’s art class as a student, and soon becomes Anne’s best friend and constant companion, even moving into the domestic spaces that Karen has left vacant. “It was like looking in a mirror,” Anne says of her new roomie – but if Ginger reflects Anne, she also, as she slowly transforms into a murderous vampire, manifests Anne’s hidden aggressive, carnivorous, bloodthirsty side. Soon Anne and Ginger are fighting it out for supremacy in the house, as both seek cures for their emergent ugliness. The conflict between these two women – akin to a sibling rivalry – is ultimately an internal one, in a film where nearly everything is solipsistic and psychologised, as we follow a single (if two-headed) Lynchian ‘woman in trouble’.
Anne’s inward adventures, expressly compared to those of Alice in Wonderland, are suitably surreal, as this struggling artist becomes trapped ‘in the circle of the creative’, a prisoner of, and exile to, her own artistic imagination. To escape, Anne must choose who she wishes to be, and the doors through which she wishes to pass. It is a story of grief and guilt, delusion and denial, love and redemption – and despite all the wild digressiveness, oneiric imagery and postmodern play in Sister Tempest, at its heart are deep-seated if repressed emotions that must, along with a closeted truth, be confronted. As Jeffrey puts it to Anne, “You have to get that crazy bitch out of your house!” Here, however, the eviction of Ginger is a therapeutic process – or perhaps a Kafkaesque trial – of introspection and purification in which Anne must finally see what she has done and take leave of her own darker self.
As an involuted narrative in which for the most part ‘nothing really happens‘, Sister Tempest may (at two hours) be a little on the long side, but the self-indulgence of a film which is as original and inventive as this – and which, in a way, is about a kind of self-indulgence – should be embraced with forgiveness. Following so much craziness, you may be surprised how much you are moved by the end.
© Anton Bitel