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Dustin Putman

2016 Sundance Film Festival
Christine  (2016)
3½ Stars
Directed by Antonio Campos.
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, Kim Shaw, Timothy Simons, Rachel Hendrix, Morgan Spector, John Cullum, Kimberley Drummond, Susan Pourfar, Ritchie Montgomery.
2016 – 123 minutes
Not Yet Rated
Reviewed at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by Dustin Putman for, January 28, 2016.
The troubled times and tragic end of Sarasota news journalist Christine Chubbuck is gifted a piercingly empathetic cinematic account in "Christine," directed by Antonio Campos (returning to Sundance following the 2012 premiere of "Simon Killer"). Rebecca Hall (2015's "The Gift") delivers the performance of her still-young career, a transformative turn where the actor ceases to exist. For two absorbing hours, Hall's title heroine has seemingly been given uncanny new life and, in a roundabout way, another chance to be heard. When "Christine" reaches its shattering conclusion, one finally feels as if he or she understands who she was, what she believed, and why she ultimately decided to publicly commit suicide on July 15, 1974.

Christine Chubbuck's 30th birthday is fast approaching in the summer of 1974. The host of community affairs segment "Suncoast Digest" on WZRB 30 Sarasota's local news, she yearns to create human interest stories and deliver news that matters, but boss Michael (Tracy Letts) wants higher ratings and sensationalism: "If it bleeds, it leads," he callously tells his employees as Christine's heart sinks. Career-minded and virginal, living with supportive mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron) while pining for handsome head news anchor George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall), she strives to make an impression on station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum), who is currently looking to promote someone to the larger Baltimore market. When persistent pains reveal a cyst requiring the removal of one of her ovaries, it casts a spotlight on all she sees as wrong or missing in her life—including her discovery that she will no longer be able to have biological children. Peg notices her daughter sliding back into her "moods" she experienced while living in Boston, but doesn't know how to help her. With what she perceives as everything stacked against her, Christine puts into motion one final statement she hopes no one will ever forget.

"Christine"—a title destined to confuse those familiar with the 1983 Stephen King novel and John Carpenter film adaptation—aches with compassion and humanity for its real-life subject. Those familiar with the infamous true story of Christine Chubbuck will nonetheless hope some way, somehow her fate will change for the better. Much of the credit must go to director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich for giving this forlorn figure so many different layers and shades. Yes, she is destined to take her own life, but she is not defined by this. Instead, the film sees her as a young woman with ambition to spare but awkward social skills, someone who longs to do meaningful work and is left discouraged when others are all too willing to sacrifice their morals for the bottom line. She works late nights editing pieces she cares deeply about, and still carves out time to put on puppet shows at a children's hospital. In certain respects, she is fiercely independent, and in others she still acts like a stunted youth, striving for validation from her mother and wanting desperately to be seen. This is a magnificently accomplished character study, one with such impeccable production design (by Scott Kuzio), costumes (by Emma Potter), cinematography (by Joe Anderson) and soundtrack selections it looks and sounds less like an artificial throwback version of the 1970s and more like the genuine article.

Not enough superlatives can be directed toward Rebecca Hall over what she achieves in this role. While live-action footage of the real Christine is in short supply—brief snippets can be seen in Robert Greene's documentary "Kate Plays Christine"—this, coupled with the available still photographs of her at work, confirm Hall has somehow channeled the late journalist and found the earnest, frustrated, tortured soul within her. The supporting cast is faultless, from Michael C. Hall's (2009's "Gamer") kind if somewhat misleading George Peter Ryan, to Tracy Letts' (2016's "Wiener-Dog") vaguely sexist, stubborn but not unfeeling boss Michael, to J. Smith-Cameron's (2012's "Man on a Ledge") concerned mom Peg, to Maria Dizzia's (2015's "While We're Young") news editor and confidant Jean Reed, trying to reach out to her colleague and, sadly, not breaking through.

"Christine" is wise not to end on the blunt, brutal climactic event all will be nervously expecting, but to transition perspectives thereafter to Jean. She, like her late friend, wants to move forward in her field and is facing similar challenges in getting there. Unlike Christine, however, she has a healthier, more level frame of mind and the coping skills to move toward the possibilities for her future. As a shellshocked Jean sits down in her darkened home with a bowl of ice cream in her lap and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" on her television, she is left to reflect on what has occurred and the person she cared about who could no longer keep up appearances for another day. Christine lost her battle even as she made her point, holding an unflattering mirror in front of viewers drawn to what she saw as "blood and guts television." Jean wants to believe—nay, has to believe—her destiny holds more hope, and they are right there in the "Love Is All Around" lyrics she hums. She's gonna make it after all.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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