A black as tar comedy charting the dissolution of a commune for sober living in 90’s suburban New Jersey.
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Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven is set in a sober living house in New Jersey, 1990. Jim (Keith Poulson) and Lucy (Deragh Campbell) run the house, which holds a screwy group of recovering addicts. They function as an atypical family, and get along more or less as well as most typical ones. A new housemate, Ann (Hannah Goldson) arrives, who is the ex of Betty (Eleonore Hendricks), who is now married to Fred (Henri Douvry), who is there with his daughter, Courtney (Tallie Medel). There are many more housemates of varying personalities, and though the volatile but caring unit functions, it is abruptly disrupted with Ann’s intrusion. Suddenly some are relapsing, lives are crumbling, their delicate world within the world is ending.
What’s funny about addiction? A lot apparently, like watching a group therapy exercise where members reenact their worst memories in front of their housemates—a handheld camcorder documents these amateur acting sessions. Silver’s dark humor is passively mean spirited, but it avoids the celebrated prickliness of more overt provocateurs like Solondz or Von Trier. Silver is sending out much more indie vibes, the humor snappy but without too much bite, mumbled in offbeat dialogue. Still we feel for these characters, and it is either because Silver ultimately treats them with respect, or because we just can’t stand watching these struggling people continue to suffer. This is something Silver shares with Solondz, but the lo-fi, home movie vérité style actually falls more inline with Harmony Korine. In fact, Stinking Heaven as a whole shares more than one quality with Korine’s Julien donkey boy. But this cast has no Werner Herzog or Chloe Sevigny to add a layer of celebrity infused self-awareness to the madness.
Perhaps the better-known players are Keith Poulson, who plays the pathetic and desperate house overlord, Jim, or Hannah Goldson, who plays the cataclysmic Ann. But Goldson and Poulson are forcing it a bit more than some of their co-stars, little known actors like Henri Douvry, who is simply a whirlwind as Fred, or Deragh Campbell (a co-writer on the script) as the unhinged Lucy. These performances are not only what makes Stinking Heaven so much more urgent and impactful, they are in tune with the guerrilla spirit, the freedom from Hollywood storytelling and polished factory made cinema. Silver is a master of the micro-budget. He embraces all the DIY zaniness in part founded by the Dogme 95 movement (whih churned out gems like Vittenberg’s The Celebration and Von Trier’s The Idiots).And Silver’s commitment to those edicts is partly why Douvry’s performance is something a DiCaprio or a Pacino could never duplicate. Even Herzog in Julien donkey boy is too big time, too aware of his surroundings, too much of a lo-fi fanboy to totally lose himself to the atmosphere.
Stinking Heaven captivated me because of its dedication to this certain kind of cinematic realism—it’s a divine grittiness. But Silver’s obsession with his set up, with the idea that love does not “transcend,” as a group singing therapy session has the housemates repeating like some droning chant, is at the heart of all his work. Silver seems to be wildly against this notion of love being the elixir to life’s myriad obstacles, and goes as far to pit love against more destructive forces like addiction, or teen pregnancy (Uncertain Terms), or mental instability (Soft in the Head). In fact, he even goes as a far as to look at love’s destructive nature and how it can drive us to be our worst selves. Whatever Silver is trying to get as is clearly unfinished business—it’s why we can look forward annually to him reopening this can of worms. Lucky for us, as the movies are not only getting better, they’re easier to dissect; the familiarity is comforting even if the aim is to elicit discomfort.
- Acting - 8/108/10
- Cinematography - 7/107/10
- Plot/Screenplay - 7/107/10
- Setting/Theme - 7/107/10
- Buyability - 7/107/10
- Recyclability - 7/107/10