Film Review – Sun Don’t Shine
There’s something about the state of Florida that just feels illuminatingly dirty—bright sun and dirt; yellow and brown. It’s a washed-out stain that will never come clean, and it seems to permeate with a psychic sense of a violent, tragic past. The band Modest Mouse has a song on the album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, aptly titled “Florida,” which repeats the lyrics “Far enough, far enough, isn’t far enough.” With the film Sun Don’t Shine, writer/director/actor Amy Seimetz seems to have the atmosphere and attitude of central Florida captured like lightning in a bottle—so much so, in fact, that it might unfortunately be a stain on an otherwise refreshingly crafted neo-noir film.
There’s a tightness to the cinematography here that works as an antithesis to the wide open spaces of the endlessly flat terrain that is Florida. In so doing, Seimetz and cinematographer Jay Keitel create a claustrophobic aesthetic that brings a heightened sense of tension to the story. The film opens on two people, a woman and a man, physically tussling with each other in a muddy pond. The shots are fragmented and close to the people, creating a sense of confusion for the viewer. The fight ends and the couple are in a car driving. It’s not certain if they are lovers, friends, or even enemies in a compromised situation. We are simply thrown into the middle of their circumstance, and the rest of the film is about catching us up, a fragment of the story at a time. What is certain is that Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) are traveling across central Florida in an attempt to get away from somewhere, and get somewhere else. As the minimal pieces of the situation are revealed it becomes clear that things are not good; whatever happened before was bad, and where they’re going now is the result—an attempt to get clear of what’s behind them.
The whole thing is played out like someone trying to recall a repressed memory. There’s not much urgency to whatever their plan is, and there sure isn’t any calm rationalization going on. This is in part what the film wants to do. It’s designed to confuse and cloud, and keep the viewer separated from the entirety of the big picture. Whether this works effectively or not depends on the viewer. I personally found myself frustrated by the experience. I love movies where the plot is a mystery and watching the film is part of solving that mystery. The recent film Upstream Color is, in my opinion, a perfect example of plot as mystery. (It’s also another film that involves Amy Seimetz.) This approach here didn’t work for me. There’s too much lingering on the characters’ ennui without a given proper reason, first off. But more than that, it’s the characters themselves.
There’s a sense of tragedy in these people’s pedigree that dictates a certain acceptance of their situation. This all plays into their surroundings, and is yet another aspect of Florida that seems to hit the nail squarely on the head. However, with characters as marginalized from the audience as these ones are, it makes it hard for me to care. What I experienced instead was a dislike for them. This could be in part due to the actors’ portrayals themselves. Kate Lyn Sheil seems to act through closed eyes and clenched teeth, while Kentucker Audley never seems too assured of his own line delivery to buy into his character.
What did work for me was the way the film was made. The minimalistic and creative camera placements, the way nothing ever seems truly framed so as we can get a good look. Everything is just right out of sight, or focus, pushed out of the frame by the awkward angles and tight photographing. It’s unsettling, and thus effective. Seimetz proves that she can both write and direct a neo-noir thriller with a panache that’s often not employed in films like this; she wants you, the viewer, to be uncomfortable. It might just be too effective. By the end of the film, as the bigger picture becomes clearer, I hadn’t really gained the connection to the characters I feel I needed to care about or empathize with them, in order to feel the weight of all the implications that had been brought out. I merely nodded to myself and thought, “Yeah, that’s what happens.” A sentiment brought on by my desire many times to reach into the film and shake the characters around, leading to the hindsight head nod of “I told you so.”
Any good, tragic crime story should have that aspect of frustration between it and the audience. It’s part of the archetype of the genre that the main characters are doomed, and we just have to sit back and watch, knowing it’s going to happen because they don’t see beyond the edge of their situation—an idea that’s fully brought out by the visual presentation of the film. This all just really means the movie masterfully achieves what the story dictates it should, but ultimately leaves the viewer in a position of deciding if they’re masochistic enough to enjoy it.
Final Grade: B-