Just how minimalist can a film get before it begins to disappear?
That’s the high-stakes risk Mark Mihok seems to be taking in Sunspot, a movie which strips away all non-essentials. A few essentials too, perhaps, as it pares itself down to nearly nothing.
Set in small-town New York, the film boasts a diverse cast but only three or four leading characters. The style is more observational than propulsive, with just a few incidents breaking up short scenes of casual conversation. The whole thing clocks in at well under an hour.
Mihok is, clearly, seeing just how little he can put onscreen and still end up with a film. That he has any success at all is mostly thanks to his cast.
Joelle Montoya takes the lead as River, a Native American scraping by with housekeeping jobs, while Rivera Reese is Sharky, her sharp-tongued bartender friend. Montoya is a little too blank-faced and unknowable to give us much insight into River, but Reese is a prickly, punky live-wire. And J Brian, as their no-account friend Pete, adds some much-needed humor as a sad-sack handyman.
These aren’t particularly sympathetic figures – they, and their friends, are all petty thieves at heart, happy to goof off from work or steal from an employer without a moment’s hesitation. But they do feel real, and their impulsive risk-taking is perfectly in character. After all, if they could control themselves and think ahead, they might not be where they are now, in constant danger of eviction and unemployment.
The film would be stronger, though, if it had a little more self-discipline itself; even at 53 minutes, it feels padded. There are constant random shots of shabby landscapes – power lines against the sky, empty downtowns, scraggly vegetation. Occasionally, inexplicably, everything goes out of focus. Colorful characters pop up for a single scene and then disappear.
There are definitely stories in these sorts of towns, and featuring these kinds of beaten-down characters; the wonderful Debra Granik, who directed the very good Down to the Bone, Winter’s Bone, and Leave No Trace, seemed to specialize in them. (And isn’t it time someone gave her the chance to make another movie?)
But while those films anchored themselves in simple plots – a heroine with something at stake, something she needed to achieve, and a variety of obstacles in her way – Sunspot wants to get by on character alone, introducing us to several interesting ones but then not giving them anything terribly interesting to do.
Ultimately, it feels more like a graduate thesis than a movie, a pencil sketch than a portrait – and proof that, sometimes, less is less.