Something happened to Janie (Sarah Hagan). Something bad. This cataclysmic event — wherein quick flashes of screams by the pool mixing with bloody red liquid screens of abstraction are all we ever see — has led her to an agreed upon house arrest. Cared for by long-time nanny Irma (Barbara Crampton), this young woman must fulfill psychological tests with colored pencils and flowers, engage in yoga centering techniques, and consume a regimented series of medication. Every day she gets better. Every day she’s more like herself. Even Irma appears satisfied with the progress, talking to her father abroad about how it may be time to let her back out into the world. But this is the world that consumed her once. It doesn’t take long to threaten doing so again.

This is the descent into a relapsed psychotic break known as Ben Cresciman‘s Sun Choke. He throws us in without context or orientation, the uncertainty of Janie’s predicament and authoritative calm of Irma’s escalating “punishments” worming their way under our skin as fantasy and reality merge into one. Janie isn’t out the door for more than a few minutes before her struggles reappear via a doppelganger that shouldn’t exist. Here she is driving in hoodie and sunglasses only to find herself happy and exposed in the car passing by. Are we dealing with time travel? Clones? Or is Cresciman simply ensuring we understand her mind’s volatility? Distraught and broken with a parallel identity clawing to the surface, Janie knows both can’t exist internally. “Margo” must be projected outward.

As Janie’s newfound freedom increases, so too does the film’s disorienting quality. What’s seen cannot be trusted, the overexposed radiation burns at screen’s edge turning our gaze into a window looking through her eyes. Is that a second Janie across the street or Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), the unsuspecting object of her attention? A few hours out each day turn to nightly stalk sessions, Irma remaining home to supply the necessary “therapy” of tuning fork torture upon the girl’s return. But as the consequences of Janie’s actions spiral out of control, the maneuvers warranting such a violent response increase. “Margo” wants escape. To do so is to take over Savannah’s life: stealing her boyfriend, using her shower, and becoming a three-dimensional entity in her mold outside Janie’s prison.

The result’s a tense journey of psychological despair. We’re supposed to hate Irma and yet find a genuine love in her heart. We’re supposed to pity Janie and yet she’s this uncontrollable force that craves the danger of her actions and hate in her heart. No one can be simplistically defined, the chaos wrought by both must be held in check. Is locking a dog’s shock collar around her throat the proper reaction? Perhaps not. But it’s effective. As the abuse becomes more sever the power within Janie rises. This girl transforms into a creature of instinct without regard for life or death as “Margo” fights to take control. Irma’s hold suddenly proves tenuous at best; the little girl she believes is buried inside may no longer exist.

For most of the film Cresciman contains things to these two characters: Janie and Irma. The dynamic shifts from frustration and compassion to physical abuse and fits of rage. We know halfway through why Irma cares for the girl, but how the relationship began is revealed much later. Everything’s very in-your-face and present-day, the past merely one of many catalysts for this current state. It’s not about how we got here, but what happens next. Can Janie be saved? Can Irma get through to her with tough love bordering on masochism for the simple reason she refuses to seek help to perform her therapy? Physical duress manifests as psychological and vice versa. Every migraine pulse a potential trigger to revert a year of progress back to square one.

And poor Savannah is caught in the middle as a kind soul and hypersexual figure. Watching her live her life is to witness an existence Janie covets. She wants Savannah’s body to be her own as well as an object for pleasure. She wants her freedom and ability to engage in relationships. It’s a disturbing connection that’s built in Janie’s head from the get-go — there’s no turning back or glimmer of hope. Janie starts her study of this stranger by following her and documenting her life with mental pictures until she gains the courage to enter with full confidence. What she could never have anticipated, though, is the table turning shift rendering her into the domineering jailor she despises. Janie desires Savannah’s body, but she needs Irma’s control.

Sun Choke depicts a transformation as Janie’s mind warps left and right without an example of normal to aspire towards. All she has are idyllic dreams steeped in violence and death. Love has never been sweet or selfless; it’s always come at a price. Hagan embodies this fierce anger bubbling below a surface feigning weakness and fear. Her Janie never stops. She adheres to Irma’s rules (Crampton relishing the opportunity to dole out horror trope punishment rather than receive it) because the results make her stronger. It’s about positioning herself for victory; to topple the only figure that lives above her on her insulated food chain so she can finally enter this world without constraints. If she does, it may not be as wonderfully easy as she pretends.

Sun Choke is now on VOD with a limited release coming Friday, August 5th.

Grade: B-

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