'Christine': Sundance Review

Christine still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A movie that initially struggles to define what it wants to be, but gets there eventually.

Rebecca Hall stars as the Florida newscaster who was the first known person to commit suicide live on-air, with Michael C. Hall as the anchorman object of her unrequited love.

In the final moments of Antonio Campos' Christine, the warming theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show is heard, providing a brilliant signoff that's simultaneously droll and tragic. That cheery lite-feminism anthem evokes a 1970s TV career girl tossing her hat in the air as she accepts her single status and takes ownership of her town, nodding to the parallel universe of positivity and achievement that Christine Chubbuck dreams of inhabiting.

Played by Rebecca Hall with an awkward abrasiveness that swings fearlessly between off-putting and affecting, the character is a sad pop-cultural footnote who is now receiving her primetime moment, 42 years after she shot herself in the head, live on camera. How curious today's audiences will be about that bizarre story remains a big question.

Chubbuck's 1974 suicide on a local news show in Sarasota, Fla., had satirical echoes in the film Network, an earlier teleplay version of which predates her death. In Network, however, the central figure was a nightly news anchorman whose psychotic breakdown and threatened suicide were broadcast ratings manna until his truth-telling rants became inconvenient. The more private events surrounding Chubbuck's death in a much dimmer spotlight are the subject of two films premiering at Sundance, the other one being Robert Greene's meta-docudramaKate Plays Christine.

Having touched on the dark power of video technology in his previous features, Afterschool and Simon Killer, Campos goes deeper into that territory here, working for the first time from a screenplay by another writer, Craig Shilowich. The result is a peculiar film — chilly and uncomfortable, but also steeped in a sly sense of irony. The prickly humor makes some scenes play almost like a King of Comedy-type riff on media culture, fashioned into an extremely muted workplace comedy.

That creates some tonal uncertainty in the first hour, especially given the amount of time it takes to reveal the pathos in Hall's brittle characterization. But the movie gets on firmer ground once the disappointments and frustrations start mounting up, and Christine's gnawing ambition inexorably gives way to a sudden fatalistic awakening. To their credit, Campos and Shilowich never play the senseless death of the protagonist for movie-of-the-week poignancy, nor as trite commentary about the hunger for fame and success. Rather, Christine is an unblinking yet also understated character study of an unstable woman with a consuming professional drive, who hits a wall as her 30th birthday approaches and sees no way around it.

Played out against the unfolding of Richard Nixon's fall from grace on the national political stage, the film juxtaposes that dramatic news fodder with the mind-numbing items Christine is forced to cover on her community-interest beat — strawberry festivals, egg production, zoning disputes. Even when she tries to get her teeth into a story, micromanaging every segment with backup from her supportive cameraperson, Jean (Maria Dizzia), her irascible producer, Mike (Tracy Letts), yawns.

With ratings in the toilet and advertising down, Mike delivers a new mandate calling for juicier stories: "If it bleeds, it leads." But Christine fights him every step of the way, refusing to sensationalize work that she approaches with integrity. Her eventual attempts to compromise, by uncovering some grit in sunshiny Sarasota, are unimpressive. But when word trickles down that station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) is looking to poach talent for a new network in Baltimore, a top-30 market, Christine's bids to play the game become more manic.

To the extent that she has a life outside the studio, it's a series of paradoxes that don't quite fit with the hard-edged professional woman itching to make her mark. She drives around town in a bright yellow VW bug, singing along to John Denver; volunteers at a clinic, performing puppet shows for disabled kids; and spends hours in a girlish pink bedroom plastered with MOR pop posters, cooking up ideas for lead news items that will never happen.

Incapable of a relaxed social interaction, Christine lives with her well-meaning but flaky mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron). Peg loves her daughter but doesn't know how to talk to her, nervously wondering if she's slipping into another funk like the one that caused her to uproot from her previous home in Boston.

Along with her obvious mood disorder, Christine suffers from physical pain caused by an ovarian cyst. When she's informed that surgery will lessen the chances of her having children, another empty canyon opens up in her life.

That encroaching desolation is fed also by her unrequited love for the channel's anchorman, George. He's played by Michael C. Hall in a delicious turn as a suave charmer with a cocked eyebrow and a winning smile but not much substance. When George finally gets past Christine's stiffness and asks her out to dinner, what seems at first to be a date ends up turning into a misguided motivational project that rakes up stark truths. To make things worse, the evening ends with Christine absorbing the crushing lesson that nothing succeeds like mediocrity.

While Campos' tone and storytelling are not always the smoothest, and some of his choices are perplexing (that distracting tick-tock music, for instance), he slowly builds a detailed mosaic of his central character and the environment she's so determined to conquer. The fact that it's so cheap and unglamorous (production designer Scott Kuzio's recreation of '70s decor and color schemes is just right) makes Chubbuck's story all the more plaintive.

There's tasty character work, not just from Michael C. Hall, embracing the inherent cheesiness in the caricature of the former golden-boy quarterback rarely troubled by his limitations. Letts is also terrific as the exasperated newsroom veteran with the explosive temper; Veep regular Timothy Simons is funny and endearing as the gangly weatherman; Cullum nails a specific breed of eccentric but unpretentious wealthy businessman; and Dizzia has several quietly moving moments as the colleague who would be Christine's friend if she'd let her.

But the movie rests on Rebecca Hall's capable shoulders, bowed from the chip Christine carries around. Even her walk is clumsy, as if she's so possessed by the need to get somewhere and do something meaningful that she can barely coordinate her limbs.

Like the director and screenwriter, Hall refuses to sentimentalize her character by making her a gifted, misunderstood victim of a culture that tends more often to reward women like shapely sportscaster Andrea (Kim Shaw). On the evidence presented here, Chubbuck reads as dour and almost scarily intense on camera, so her professional aptitude is questionable even if her dedication is not. But Hall makes it impossible to look away from this portrait of a woman brought to the heartbreaking conclusion that she's beyond hope.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: The Wonder Club, in association with Fresh Jade, Borderline Films

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, Timothy Simons, J. Smith-Cameron, Kim Shaw, John Cullum, Morgan Spector
Director: Antonio Campos
Screenwriter: Craig Shilowich
Producers: Melody C. Roscher, Craig Shilowich

Executive producers: Robert Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve, Sean Durkin, Josh Mond
Director of photography: Joe Anderson

Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Emma Potter

Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Editor: Sofia Subercaseaux

Casting: Doug Aibel, Stephanie Holbrook
Sales: UTA, WME

Not rated, 119 minutes