Sun Don't Shine had its New York premiere last night as part of the Rooftop Films screening series. The film will also play at the Edinburgh Film Festival later this month.
The plot of Amy Seimetz's debut feature is essentially a series of problems that the two main characters have to solve: drive from A to point B in a car that keeps breaking down, get an alibi, get some rest, stay out of sight, keep it together, cool it. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that they don't really manage to accomplish any of these things, since the opening shot—a close-up of the face of one of the main characters (Crystal, played by Kate Lyn Sheil) as she gets beaten by the other (Leo, played by Kentucker Audley)—sets up the relationship between the two as beyond-doomed. The big narrative question, then, isn't whether they'll be able to do what they need to do, but to what degree their irreparably incompatible personalities—she's woozy and barely-there, he's jumpy and suspicious—will lead them to deceive, undermine and abandon one another.
All of this is laid out with the efficiency of good cheapo B noir; there's more than a hint of Poverty Row craft to the way Sun Don't Shine compacts its pulp premise—lovers off cuckold, plan to dump his body in the Florida Everglades—into a short running time (80 minutes), a limited time frame (less than 24 hours), a handful of practical locations (a roadside, a motel room, an unassuming house, a bar), and a minimum of characters. Information is given only when it's truly necessary, and nothing is extraneous—in fact, the film is so locked into Crystal and Leo's paranoid, delusional perspectives that it becomes suffocating. The Super 16mm camerawork—handheld, prone to close-ups—has a certain tourniquet quality; Sun Don't Shine's little two-person universe—all scuzz, sweat and shadow—is occluded. Everything off-screen (including, fittingly, the voice of an unseen character—one of only a few non-Crystal-and-Leo speaking parts in the film—in the final shot) seems to barely exist.
An approach like this—where the characters don't merely inform the movie's style and tone, they are the the style and tone—gambles everything on performance. An even bigger gamble: staking it all on two characters who are largely ciphers, and who are out of touch with their own pasts and present (for example, we're told that Crystal—who barely seems capable of feeding herself—has a child). Gambling's always to be commended; it's even better, though, if you can pull the gamble off.
Crystal is all flighty chaos, and Sheil, the no-budget scene's Lady of Perpetual Psychosexual Anguish, does her feral thing, going from stupefied to crazy-eyed on a moment's notice. Leo, in contrast, is an attempt at order; Audley, a damn good actor, pulls off the tricky business of playing a character who is himself trying (and failing) to play a character—a frazzled schmoe pretending to be level-headed and two-steps-ahead. Defeated at every turn, he wears a squinty facial expression that suggests an especially painful headache—as though his brain has run out of space for worries.
Sheil, on the other hand, has a blank stare and flushed cheeks—as though whatever hint of a normal personality Crystal had has long vacated, leaving her prone to suggestion (when she follows Leo's instructions—as in a scene where he leaves her in a tent in the woods while he goes to meet up with an old flame—she appears hypnotized) and impulse. In their intermittent bouts of frenzy, both actors resemble cornered animals—trapped by the plot, trapped by the framing, trapped by themselves. In short, what Seimetz accomplishes is a unity of camera style, acting style, editing style, and narrative rhythm; it's no small feat to make a small film this smartly assured.