Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Sahkanaga: Puppy Love and Rotting Bodies

Life as an undertaker’s son was probably not easy for a Georgia teenager, even before the crematory scandal.  Based on the notorious case of over three hundred supposedly cremated bodies discovered dumped in the Blue Hills, John Henry Summerour’s adds a slightly macabre spin on the tried and true coming of age tale in Sahkanaga (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Brooklyn and Atlanta.

Sheriff Kershaw dies a bad death.  A popular public figure, the entire town mourns his passing.  Of course, the anti-social Paul is hardly grief-stricken.  Frankly, he is quite okay with the Sheriff’s untimely demise, since it was the catalyst bringing his granddaughter Lyla to their sleepy town.  She makes quite the impression on the awkward teen when as he assists his father with the funeral.  Much to his surprise, Paul finds the Sheriff’s body sprawled out in the woods shortly thereafter.

Paul’s father subcontracts cremations to the amiable Chris.  Yes, his one man operation is the most affordable on offer, but he always seems reliable.  Unfortunately, Chris clearly has issues Summerour only hints at.  However, he also might be able to incriminate Paul for a stupid kid mistake he now sorely regrets.  Naturally, the truth will eventually come out, forcing Paul’s family to face the community’s understandable anger.

The summer infatuation story is rather standard stuff, but at least co-leads Trevor Neuhoff and Kristin Rievley look like real life kids.  Surprisingly though (particularly for a film screening in Dumbo, Brooklyn), Sahkanaga treats themes of faith seriously and fairly.  The Walker County citizenry are church goers, but that does not make them closet hypocrites.  It turns out the Sheriff was, but that subplot is merciful left to wither on the vine.  In contrast, rather than a venal predator, the town’s television prayer line host is a sympathetically dotty elderly lady.  Viewers rather feel for her when she is pulled into the grisly tale.

The fact that the troubled Chris is African American is neither belabored nor ignored.  Likewise, the responses to his crimes run the gamut of social enlightenment.  This is not a film out to score cheap shots against the Deep South.  As a result, Sahkanaga feels grounded in reality without getting preachy or burying its head in the sand.  Richly nuanced, Charles Patterson’s performance as the cremator is low key, but quite powerful.  It really helps make the film.

Summerour’s pay-off is subtle, but it stays with you.  Ultimately, Sahkanaga suggests faith might indeed help people face adversity.  Despite the somewhat weak presence of its protagonist, it is a distinctive film, capturing a vivid sense of place. A mature, forgiving work, Sahkanaga is worth seeing, if playing somewhere relatively convenient.  Recommended for patrons of the indie film scene and Southern audiences, Sahkanaga opens this Friday (12/7) at the ReRun Gastropub in Brooklyn and Plaza Theatre in Atlanta.