Apr 10: In ‘Stinking Heaven,’ everything isn’t fine

Indie/mumblecore veteran Nathan Silver’s latest micro-budget feature focuses on the inherent dysfunction in a proclaimed “sober-living home” in 1990 Passaic, NJ. Largely improvised and shot with a vintage camcorder in Academy (4:3) ratio, the film’s authentic analog grittiness immediately feels like a home movie of a bygone era in the same vein as Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (WFF 2013).

The chronicle of drug addiction-to-recovery, like many films of Stinking Heaven‘s ilk, is psychologically harrowing, but it achieves a more palpable realism in consistently tight handheld framing, eventually producing a hypnotizing, psychedelic effect within the floating, sketched scenes. Aided by an unusual clash of cold non-diegetic synthetic music by Paul Grimstad and the communal ballads by the actors on acoustic guitar and tambourine, the film’s heightened discomfort is a result of its indescribable earnestness in the way it captures human behavior that’s colored, strengthened, and exacerbated by community.

Co-operated by a couple, Jim and Lucy (Keith Poulson and Deragh Campbell, respectively), the suburban commune is comprised of people of all ages and walks of life; following a preliminary flashback between Betty (Eleonore Hendricks) and girlfriend Ann (Hannah Gross) in a state of drugged euphoria near a backwater pond, the scene switches to an unknown future time where a small crowd has gathered for a home wedding. Betty is marrying the aging Kevin (Henri Douvry) as the two have, based on the encouraging banter, found resilience and love in one another’s support.

The celebratory moment is quickly crashed by quiet chaos, as Jim is seen sleeping with Kevin’s daughter, Courtney (Tallie Medel), and more violently met with a destabilizing reality that both recedes from and seeps into the film in the tenants’ reenactments of their self-determined lowest points in phases of addiction. These sobering performances for the camera (both Silver’s and whomever in the house is framing with another lens) produce an interesting mirroring effect that is meant to act as a cathartic break and supreme deterrent. But these displays of public humiliation, as first demonstrated by Kevin’s shirtless sobbing while flailing on the floor, only reek of the inevitable misery of living as an addict and the unending cycle of relapse and recovery.


Despite these recurring confrontations and the general vibe of the film itself dictated by Jim’s rules of the house, the histories of the residents largely remain shrouded in mystery. Intermittently goading one another, they consistently hang in a state of remote agitation; the camera often roams the screen as if silently pleading with the group to open up, but the presence of any camera rarely seems to result in anything but an outburst. When the tenants do get out of the sober house to frolic in a nearby park to sell their own bathtub brew of kombucha (labeled “fermented healthy drink”) out of a van, the world and tone of the film switch, suggesting the debilitating isolation within suburbia’s walls. This, of course, is a tragic realization in the fragile makeshift family, which is upset even further by the sudden reappearance of Ann, Betty’s ex, at the house.

The few moments of fleeting tranquility surrounding Betty and Kevin’s marriage begin to feel stuck in time (not unlike the footage itself). But the actors’ natural chemistry and articulation of a wide emotional range promise at least a chance of reconciliation and perseverance; a collective desire for love and belonging lingers in increasingly desperate circumstances. A couple noticeable anachronisms may peek out from Stinking Heaven‘s periphery over its 70 minute running time, but its viscerally organic facilitation of last-ditch connections leaves a truly empathetic impression if not a slight mental bruise.

  • The Wisconsin Film Festival will host the North American premiere of Stinking Heaven, which screens at the Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall) on Apr 10 (9:00p). Director Nathan Silver and producer Rachel Wolther are scheduled to attend for a post-screening Q&A. Tickets are still available.