'Kate Plays Christine': Sundance Review

Kate Plays Christine still 1 _ H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
This absorbing docudrama hybrid works equally well as detached case study and revealing performance piece.

Filmmaker Robert Greene and indie actor Kate Lyn Sheil undertake a unique exploration into the newscaster who shot herself live on air in 1974 on a Florida TV talk show.

After merging cinema verite with melodrama to blur the boundaries separating performance from reality in 2014's Actress, writer-director Robert Greene again travels that in-between zone in his engrossing new docudrama Kate Plays Christine. His accomplice is the always interesting indie anti-star Kate Lyn Sheil. She relocates to sun-bleached Sarasota, Fla., to prepare to play Christine Chubbuck, the local newscaster who committed suicide on camera in 1974. But while the project is ostensibly a stylized '70s soap, the documentary itself is the vehicle. That makes this a fascinating process movie about acting and storytelling, but also a curious meta-contemplation of our own voyeuristic attraction to tragedy.

Greene's film is one of two features in Sundance about Chubbuck. It premieres alongside Antonio Campos' Christine in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, which stars Rebecca Hall in a meticulously layered performance in the title role.

Sheil, known for such indie films as Listen Up Philip and TV work in House of Cards, is an intriguing screen presence. Her somewhat elusive quality makes her an ideal fit for Greene's study in characterization via investigation and osmosis. Sheil appears to reveal a lot about herself in the project. Or is it all make-believe? In one funny comment early on in a phone call to her father, she says, "If a performance of mine is called 'subtle' one more time, I think I might lose my mind."

At the risk of hastening that madness, her work here is both immersive and unshowy, acquiring an unexpected rawness as the film develops. The deeper she gets into her research, the more she disappears into the character, a lonely depressive living in a time when such conditions were often inadequately diagnosed and treated.

Sheil's method-like research yields no access to Chubbuck's family members and a direct connection to close professional colleagues only late in the film. The frustrating paucity of concrete details nags Sheil every step of the way. If Chubbuck's case is remembered at all today, it's chiefly for its parallels to the 1976 Sidney Lumet film Network.

The most tangible element Sheil has to work with aside from still photos is Chubbuck's sign-off words from her final appearance on the morning talk show, Suncoast Digest: "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." She then put a bullet through her head and died 14 hours later.

Sheil's sleuthing for more shading to fill in the gaps initially takes the form of detective work, quizzing locals for anything they recall of the incident. Turns out not much. The majority of her basic information comes from the Washington Post coverage. Only one copy of the actual tape of Chubbuck's on-camera suicide is believed to exist; according to information here, it was never shown and remains inaccessible.

While searching for clues to Chubbuck's personality, Sheil also begins the physical process of transformation. She has a wig and an outfit made, visits a tanning salon, gets fitted for brown contact lenses and redecorates her rented room with plush toys and dolls in the girlish style of her subject's former home. Greene punctuates the research with dramatic reenactments, finding parallels between the roles of Chubbuck's mother, brother, colleagues and the actors chosen to play them.

Sheil also reads up on suicide. She visits a gun store to purchase a revolver from the same merchant where Chubbuck bought hers; she takes shooting lessons and interviews cops to research suicide methods. 

At an almost imperceptible point in all this, the film starts morphing from documentary into dramatic portrait, as Keegan DeWitt's music evolves from faint murky undertones to a needling soundscape.

Sheil's obsessive desire to know the character intensifies as cinematographer Sean Price Williams' camera tightens its gaze on her. She acquires a harder edge as she portrays Chubbuck's angry interactions with her producer and co-workers, while alternately softening with each new fragment of personal insight. There's a moving sense of a woman with complex feelings about her craft, determined to do justice to another woman who was ambitious and dedicated, but felt held back.

While the film could benefit from trimming 10 minutes or so, its emotional intensity creeps up on you until the final reenactment scene, in which everyone, including Greene, is implicated in questions about the legitimacy of depicting real-life tragedies — particularly those involving the psychotic breakdowns of women.

Had Chubbuck's suicide happened in today's more gawker-friendly technological age, the TV clip would be an instant viral sensation, ripe for widespread media dissection. Greene and Sheil highlight the unknowable nature of the largely forgotten incident by framing it both within the sensibility of its own time and from contemporary angles that spark complex moral and ethical questions.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Faliro House, 4th Row Films, in association with Prewar Cinema Productions

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Stephanie Coatney, Michael Ray Davis, Zachary Gossel, Holland Hayes, David Mackey, Linda Roser, Mike Rubino, Marty Stonerock, Steve Zurk
Director-writer-editor: Robert Greene

Producers: Douglas Tirola, Susan Bedusa
Executive producer: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos

Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Music: Keegan DeWitt

Casting: Mark Mullen Casting
Sales: Cinetic Media

Not rated, 112 minutes