Nathan Silver's fifth feature film STINKING HEAVEN is a continuation of the theme that unites his current and previous work: the dynamics of makeshift family units and, therein, the unwelcome position of the interloper. His previous features have variously involved the sole man in a rural home for pregnant teens (UNCERTAIN TERMS, 2014); a homeless girl in New York City who repeatedly inserts herself in situations where social codes dictate her exclusion (SOFT IN THE HEAD, 2013); and a girl who negotiates the professional with the personal as a live-in nurse (EXIT ELENA, 2012). With STINKING HEAVEN, the focus is a sober-living home in 1990s suburban New Jersey. The rules are simple: no booze, no drugs, everybody participates in group activities. And to the extent that this can be called a period piece, the filmmaker's use of outmoded era-specific cameras to capture a distinctly lo-fi look adds to an imagined authenticity. This is a place to get better, but it also feels like... a cult.
The cult sensibility manifests in a repeated emphasis on the importance of not leaving the sober-living home and also a series of violent, traumatic re-enactments that only reveal themselves as staged fictions when the denizens applaud the apparent bravery of the participants. What seems clear is that through a lack of proper context for these re-enactments, the line between reality and fiction is blurred. However, since this occurs multiple times throughout the narrative, the initially provocative conceit wears out its welcome as a "fool me once" scenario. And when a stranger upsets the balance of the sober-living home, the insanity of the situation bubbles to the surface: nobody has any idea what they are doing nor are the leaders professionally qualified to offer assistance.
STINKING HEAVEN is narratively elliptical, improvised and meandering, but it is still a movie.* We are not simply watching non-linear amateur footage of a birthday party, though the quality of the image might signal videotape memories interrupted by static absences. And while this is very probably the first film that I have seen with the backdrop of a sober-living environment, the primary concern for the filmmaker appears to be the otherwise rather conventional narrative of what happens when a volatile element is introduced into an already fragile ecosystem. And in light of this, ultimately the ancient cameras at work feel more like a gimmick than a stylistic necessity.
STINKING HEAVEN could have been an aggressively anti-narrative home video experiment, a dizzying and continuous 70-minute series of subjective starts and stops. But it isn't. The movie is conventional filmmaking masquerading as innovation. Only the subject matter and its drama of exile seem particularly worth noting. When the life you lead is built on an artificial distinction, all it takes to upset that ecosystem is a single malicious entity. While there are notes of Andrew Bujalski's FUNNY HA HA - or that deeply depressed feeling that it engenders - the film as a whole feels closer to MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE than any semi-recent Mumblecore effort.
* It has a distinct beginning, middle, and end - in other words, a standard dramatic structure.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon