Rotterdam 2015: 'Stinking Heaven' review

★★★★☆
Writer and director Nathan Silver again seeks to explore the dynamics of communal living just as he did in Exit Elena (2012) to Uncertain Terms (2014). In the latter film, pregnant teens take refuge in the home of Carla (Cindy Silver), who plays a maternal, educator role in their lives and aims to protect them from external anxiety. His fifth feature Stinking Heaven (2015), which received its world premiere at IFFR, focuses on the home of Jim (Keith Poulson) and his wife Lucy (Deragh Campbell) in 1990s suburban New Jersey, who have created a commune for sober living, welcoming any recovering addict to live with them peacefully.

Remaining peaceful involves obeying the house rules, the most important of which is to keep it a sober place – anyone bringing drugs or alcohol into the house will be asked to leave. Silver's premise for the film came from a collaboration with Keith Poulson, Deragh Campbell  and Hannah Gross, who plays Ann, a disruptive force threatening the equilibrium. Silver and co-writer Jack Dunphy created an outline for the scenario inspired by 1980s documentaries about communes found on YouTube, and throughout the shoot they allowed the actors to improvise each scene, creating an authentic spontaneity crucial to the changeable moods of the volatile cohabitees. Part of Jim and Lucy's sober maintenance programme is the insistence that all members of the house partake in group activities.

These activities include singing, bathing, games, selling home-made 'health' tea, and - most unusual of all - personal re-enactments of their lowest moments as addicts. These they videotape, and allow for the impetus to share to occur at any moment. In one raw scene, the elder Gene (Larry Novak) reconstructs the foray into selling sex that lead to his becoming epileptic, the rest of the household sitting as patient observers. Silver also took the decision to shoot Stinking Heaven on a 80s analogue broadcast camera, and the 4:3 ratio and grainy image quality lends further claustrophobia to the aesthetic. The suggestion is that what is on screen might be an edit of the commune's taped re-enactment collection.

What is shown in Stinking Heaven is the potential goodness at the haven that Jim and Lucy have created, and scenes of play in the park - scrapping, picnics, games, etc. - show how each individual could decide that this is the place for them to renounce their autonomy to a higher (albeit not holy) power. Silver's vision of such an endeavour is ultimately pessimistic however, and while it is Ann's presence that creates a negative ripple effect, starting with the departure from the house of her ex, Betty (Eleonore Hendricks) – the seed of the commune's downfall appears from the outset. Natural gripes and personality clashes are evident through complaints about the contribution of each individual to the group. Stinking Heaven comes to be the perfect title for Silver's latest film, as the slightly ugly sheen of the analogue image aptly complements the sweaty, intense atmosphere of addicts on the edge, and the sheer energy of each performance is so potent it almost bursts from the screen.

Harriet Warman | @HarrietWarman

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