There are 1,792,064 movies made each year- an untrue fact that justifies missing great movies for long stretches of time. The number’s off, but the concept remains the same. It’s inevitable that, regardless of how many movies you see, there are going to be some that fly under your radar. Often times, those films are popular among your friends and colleagues, resulting in “Ooh’s,” “Aah’s,” and “What the hell is the matter with you’s” until you finally fit said movie into your viewing schedule. Others, however, generate no word of mouth and reside in a sad, secret crevice of brilliant films that never received their just desserts. If I can help it, Sun Choke will not be one of those films.
I noticed the film while scrolling through Netflix two hours ago. I’d never once heard the title mentioned by friends or co-writers, so any chance that I’d be taking on the film would be done so blindly. I pressed “play” on the screen, watched for a moment, and briefly had a thought about changing films because I could tell that Sun Choke would be a slow burn, and I wasn’t particularly in the mood for such a type of film at 3 o’clock in the afternoon- but then something happened.
I became mesmerized.
Written and directed by Ben Cresciman, Sun Choke instantly places you in the palm of a bizarre, domineering relationship between a caretaker (Barbara Crampton) and a young woman who appears to be a recovering mental patient (Sarah Hagan). The dynamic between the two as Irma, the caretaker, forces an unusual health regiment among her troubled subject, is both intriguing and unsettling, with Cresciman effortlessly maneuvering us inside the disturbed mind of the young woman.
Much like the character, we reside inside of her head throughout the entirety of the run time- a move that sacrifices any true understanding of her layered psyche due to the fact that those lines are blurred for even her, while conversely drawing us closer to the character than we could have possibly been otherwise. Impatient viewers may find this tactic frustrating, as it absolutely poses more questions than answers; but those who allow themselves to become enveloped by the psychological damage at the heart of the film will surely understand that these unanswered questions are essential in influencing our confusion so that we may feel about the character as she does about herself.
As the troubled character becomes obsessed with a stranger (Sara Malakul Lane) in which she’s inexplicably drawn to, we’re subjected to the struggle she has within herself about her horrific past, the caged life she’s grown accustomed to, and a life of normalcy that she knows she’ll never belong to. While there are graphic moments of violent horror- one that involves a rock against a skull that is particularly sticking with me- this is by and large an intricate study of a fractured mind at odds with itself.
While much of Sun Choke‘s success can be attributed to Cresciman’s direction and the established hallucinatory tone, it’s made truly unforgettable by the three astounding performances at the center of the film. Sarah Hagan is a FORCE as the troubled main character, capturing the conflicting notions of feeling fear and being feared. She longs to understand the world around her, as well as the one inside her head, but the two are often blurred and Hagan owns every moment of that psychological torment. There are times that we feel genuine empathy for the character, and also times that we’re legitimately terrified of her. This is the kind of screen commanding performance that demands appreciation, and it’s a shame that it’s yet to find the audience it deserves.
Crampton, too, delivers a performance that wastes no time in getting under your skin. Her cold, “this isn’t abuse if it’s helping you” demeanor is monstrous and frightening. The performance is reminiscent of Piper Laurie in Stephen King’s Carrie, albeit more grounded, and perhaps with better intentions. The popular horror actress has continued her on-screen domination of late with films such as We Are Still Here and Beyond the Gates, and her turn here is on par with the greatest performances of her career.
Though she’s featured less than the other two, Sara Malakul Lane brings a nurturing sweetness to her character, much like she did in the fantastic Who’s Watching Oliver, and she’s really the only character that we ultimately pull for to escape the horrific situation she’s been placed in. Like our main character, we’re drawn to Lane, the comfort she provides, and the alternate life she represents. For all Sun Choke gets right, it would fall short in this regard if Lane’s performance wasn’t of such a strong caliber.
This film will understandably not appeal to everyone. The deliberate pace, the reluctance to strictly be a horror film, and the refusal to conform to the needs of a mainstream audience will be turn-offs for some. If that last sentence appeals to you, however, then I’m confident that Sun Choke will as well. Cresciman’s film as an unforgettable psychological study, and it deserves every bit of your attention.
Stream it on Netflix today.