FILM FESTIVAL DOUBLE FEATURE: SUN DON’T SHINE (2012)/TCHOUPITPOULAS (2012)

Taking a trip to your local film festival is a good way to recalibrate your sense of weirdness. The sparsely attended showings will remind you that to the average movie patron, any film that doesn’t feature either 1. a car chase, 2, a robot chase, or 3. Adam Sandler probably qualifies as “weird.” So, although the two films commented on below may not qualify as weird by our bizarre standards, it’s good to remember that they are as extraordinary a pair of oddities as the average moviegoer might be accidentally exposed to.

Still from Shine (2012)Writer/director Amy Seimetz reveals that Sun Don’t Shine was based on a recurring nightmare, combined with her fever dream recollections of the subtle insanity engendered by south Florida humidity. The scenario sees fragile Crystal () and macho beau Leo (Kentucker Audley) on the lam heading for the Everglades in a clunker with a bad radiator, fleeing troubles which aren’t immediately disclosed but which you will easily guess. There are a few moments, when the story shifts to see things from anti-heroine Crystal’s distorted perspective (which seems equally informed by insecurity and sunstroke) that Sun seems about to take off into nightmare territory. But we always quickly return to reality and to the movie’s core, the uncomfortable co-dependent relationship between sullen Leo and wispy Crystal. The movie seems afraid to push itself past the merely uncomfortable and into the full depths of insanity, at least until a final “too little too late” moment of madness. In that, perhaps the script is only playing to its strengths. Seimetz is excellent at creating a believable dynamic between the troubled lovebirds; there’s a barroom scene where Crystal is boring her man with a story about pilfered lipstick to the point where he has to get up and walk away as if to say “I love you, but if you yap on for one more second we’ll be talking about your fat lip instead of your lipstick.” She follows him into the men’s room and wins him back with persistent affection. It’s a very real scene, but the problem is almost the entire film is made up of such supplemental moments. A movie can have so much character development that it short shrifts the main plot, and Sun Don’t Shine falls into exactly that trap. The thing about Sun that shines brightest is Sheil’s simultaneously detached and unhinged performance as dreamy Crystal, a flighty, mermaid-obsessed girl in a woman’s body whose mood swings, jealousy and loose grip on reality make her a dangerous traveling  companion. Crystal’s slight mind seems no better equipped to handle the stresses of life on the run than her pearly complexion is to withstand the relentless Florida sunshine. But she radiates that exasperating but irresistible kind of sexy that comes from being totally crazy, and it doesn’t hurt that she looks great in a stolen pink cocktail dress two sizes too small. As much as Leo thinks he’s both the brains and the brawn in the operation, he doesn’t get a vote if she really wants her way. Given more to do and nastier motivations, Sheil could have made a classic femme fatale. It’s easy to see why her acting services are in demand–she’s been in six indie features this year, and if she keeps this pace and quality up she’ll inevitably become a breakout star. Sun Don’t Shine contains the building blocks of a good psycho-noir, but despite Sheil’s sporadic hysterical outbursts, it doesn’t push the intensity level as much as it needs to. It winds up as a tale of doomed lovers on the run that covers familiar ground, too slowly.

SUN DON’T SHINE (2012). Dir. Amy Seimetz. Featuring Kate Lyn Sheil, Kentucker Audley.

Still from Tchoupitoulas (2012)If Sun Don’t Shine was inspired by a nightmare but ends up bound to reality, then Tchoupitpoulas demonstrates almost the opposite phenomenon: it’s made up entirely from real events which are stylized and abstracted until the movie becomes dreamlike. Like Sun Don’t Shine, Tchoupitpoulas doesn’t have much of a plot (it isn’t intended to) and features a sweaty Southern setting and one fascinating character. The movie is part Dixieland city symphony set in nighttime New Orleans and part character study of 9-year old budding poet William Zander (when we first meet him, the lad explains his future plans to win six Superbowls and wear all the rings on one finger before retiring football to practice law; later, he rhapsodizes about hypothetical angel flutes that play perfect harmonies). William and his two interchangeable older brothers, who find the tyke and his endless questions and ruminations incredibly annoying, have taken the free ferry across the Mississippi to take in the sights of the big city. They miss the last ride back and are stranded in town, wandering the streets and the empty parks overnight. We view the carnival of Bourbon Street through their wide and impressionable eyes. Street performers and Big Easy weirdos glide by them in an impressionistic parade: brass bands, an angel flautist, preachers trying to get the boys to accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, a Grim Reaper who pauses for pictures with tourists, karaoke drag queens, a drunken clown with blond braided pigtails and a rubber chicken. Homeless men argue on street benches. To a child’s (and a camera’s) eye, a fire dancer becomes an abstract whirl of spinning lights. The camera also pries into places the kids can’t: it follows a bluesman and a rapper onstage, and takes in an old-timey burlesque show where a dancer in a banana skirt, pasties and a g-string performs a wild, athletic (unerotic) striptease. By straying from the movie’s babes-in-the-city game plan, these adult digressions become somewhat confounding, but the filmmakers obviously thought the footage was too good to pass up. They do provide some of Tchoupitpoulas‘ most memorable moments, such as the backstage trip to the bawdy house dressing room where strippers teach each other new verses for  “Iko Iko” (which is the only scene you need to see to understand why New Orleans is the coolest city in the world). Presented in non-temporal, floating slices without commentary, the evening appears to an audience much like it will to the boys when they fondly recollect this adventure years from now. After a trip onto an abandoned pleasure yacht docked at the harbor, one of them says “that was the weirdest thing I ever did in my life… today, we became men.” Watching Tchoupitpoulas won’t be the weirdest thing you ever do and it won’t make you a man, but unless you can convince Dr. John to take you on a personal tour of the Voodoo Quarter, seeing the city through these kid’s eyes may be the next best way to experience the magic of New Orleans.

TCHOUPITOULAS (2012). Dir. The Ross Brothers (Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross). Featuring William Zanders.

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