Consuming Spirits: Film Review

Hermetic backwoods tale should please fans of esoteric animation.

Chris Sullivan's debut animated feature follows three people who work for a small-town newspaper.

A 15-year production wrought almost entirely by the hands of animator Chris Sullivan, Consuming Spirits boasts a gloomy backwoods mood that perfectly matches its tangled narrative of family secrets and country karma. Though certainly not for everyone (and not for kids of any age), the regret-tinged film displays a distinctive voice and will be embraced by devotees of offbeat animation.

Partly inspired by the filmmaker's own "social service childhood" (he was raised with 10 siblings in Pittsburgh), the bleakly comic story is slow to reveal connections between its three main characters, all of whom work for a small-town newspaper called The Daily Suggester. Victor Blue and Gentian Violet, both employed in the paste-up department, perform as a folk duo after work and are a sad sort of couple; Earl Gray, a generation older that these two, moonlights as host of a radio gardening show whose sponsors -- Heimlich's Extruded Intestinal Products; a fertilizer merchant called Manure Hut -- could've been invented by cartoonist Ben Katchor.

Earl's wee-hours discourse on caring for fragile plants and fending off predators makes an apt soundtrack for the film's action, both present-tense and in flashback; we witness hit-and-run accidents, broken homes, and dubious decisions on the part of child-welfare agents. Each participant seems to travel in his own bubble of remorse and self-doubt, no matter how tied up his story is with others'.

These homely, jowly people are brought to life mostly via moving paper cutouts, photographed against backgrounds whose multiple planes allow for focal techniques and background effects more sophisticated than a one-man film should expect. (Sullivan uses models and sketch-like pencil animation for some scenes.) The beautifully ugly visuals match a soundtrack making evocative use of background ambience other films would take pains to eliminate. All that background murmur and crude detail might lull some viewers to sleep over the course of 129 minutes, but they're sure to have interesting dreams.

Cast: Robert Levy, Nancy Andrews, Chris Sullivan, Judith Rafael, Mary Lou Zelazny, Chris Harris
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor-director of photography-music: Chris Sullivan
No rating, 129 minutes