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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

2016 Sundance Film Festival
Kate Plays Christine  (2016)
3 Stars
Directed by Robert Greene.
Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Stephanie Coatney, Marty Stonerock, Michael Ray Davis, Holland Hayes, Zachary Gossett.
2016 – 110 minutes
Not Rated
Reviewed at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by Dustin Putman for, January 27, 2016.
"In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts', and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide."
– Christine Chubbuck, on the "Suncoast Digest" WXLT-TV news program, July 15, 1974

Reality and fiction tumble and blur to mind-teasing levels in thought-provoking meta-documentary "Kate Plays Christine," a look into actress Kate Lyn Sheil's (2013's "You're Next") preparation into portraying Christine Chubbuck, the 29-year-old Sarasota television news journalist who, in 1974, shot herself live on air. Traveling to Chubbuck's old Florida stomping grounds, Sheil is surprised to discover Chubbuck has become an urban legend at best, all but entirely forgotten by those who weren't there forty-plus years ago. In taking on this somber role, Sheil is up for the challenge, but thinks it is crucial to find as much information as possible on her human subject while understanding the psychology of someone who would kill themselves. The film she will be in is described as a "stylized '70s soap opera," but she is determined to approach the part from a responsible angle where what she is doing serves a deeper purpose beyond needless exploitation. Video footage of Chubbuck is hard to come by, while the recording of her suicide is nowhere online, with only one physical copy rumored to exist and impossible to obtain. As Sheil is told by a former co-worker of Christine's, the public desire to see this gruesome footage—or any footage of her, for that matter—is not based on their interest in her as a reporter, but solely related to how she ended her life. It is this insatiability for "blood and guts" which Chubbuck so vehemently railed against.

Written and directed by Robert Greene (editor of 2015's mesmerizing "Queen of Earth"), "Kate Plays Christine" cleverly and arrestingly toys with the documentary form, blending truth with artifice. Sheil is, indeed, a real actress, and she is genuinely researching Christine Chubbuck and interviewing actual people, but the sketchy details of the project she is prepping for—and scenes from said film, interspersed throughout the second half—bring up questions of its validity. Explorations into an artist's process and performance coincide with the growing aura of mystery around a tragic figure struggling with depression during an era when the mood disorder was scarcely talked about. In a wordless scene of particular potency, Sheil walks around the silent oceanside home Chubbuck lived in at the time of her death, stepping into the backyard overlooking a bustling beach of happy vacationers. She knows she has not grasped the full extent of the late journalist's pain, or the path she traversed from a 15-year-old girl whose autobiography was full of hope for the future to a broken woman who saw no way out beside the violent one she ultimately took.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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