'Stinking Heaven': Film Review

Stinking Heaven Still - H 2015
Courtesy of BAM Cinemafest

Stinking Heaven Still - H 2015

As authentic-feeling as it is sometimes rambling

Indie filmmaker Nathan Silver's latest effort depicts the growing tensions within a commune for recovering addicts in suburban New Jersey

The latest micro-budgeted feature from indie filmmaker Nathan Silver (Soft in the Head, Uncertain Terms) is being billed as a "black as tar comedy," but there's little funniness on tap in his cinematic portrait of a commune for recovering addicts set in less-than-picturesque Passaic, New Jersey. Depicting the growing disintegration of the idealistic group as interpersonal tensions rise to the surface, Stinking Heaven, recently showcased at the BAMcinemaFest, more than lives up to its title.

Set in 1990, the film begins with the wedding of two of the commune's residents, Kevin (Henri Douvry) and the much younger Betty (Eleonore Hendricks). It's a tenderly sweet moment; less so is the scene in which they consummate their marriage in front of the others, including Kevin's teenage daughter (Tallie Medel).

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Run by married couple Jim (Keith Poulson) and Lucy (Deragh Campbell), the commune, which supports itself by selling the tea they brew in their bathtub, enforces a strict set of rules, the most stringent naturally being a ban on drugs and alcohol. While there's plenty of play time, including games, boxing matches and communal showers, the atmosphere is also fraught with discord as petty bickering often devolves into vicious arguments. The members' enforced reenactments of their lowest personal moments is less cathartic than humiliating, and the induction of its new arrival Ann (Hannah Gross),  Betty's former lover and fellow drug-user, leads to further unraveling. Later, Kevin is unceremoniously kicked out of the house when he's discovered to be using again, with tragic consequences resulting.

Filmed with a vintage Betacam video camera appropriate to the era in which the story is set, the improvised proceedings—Silver and Jack Dunphy are given a "story" credit, with several of the actors contributing "additional material"—have a rambling, unfocused quality that makes the film seem much longer than its brief running time. For every emotionally resonant scene, there's another that seems to drag on pointlessly, although the filmmaker once again displays a talent for delineating the emotional tensions that develop when disparate characters are thrown together.

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The work certainly has an air of authenticity, thanks to both the home movie-style filming and the deeply lived-in performances by the ensemble who, according to the production notes, lived communally during the shooting much like their characters. Still, when one of the troubled figures runs fleeing from the stifling environs, it's hard for the viewer not to feel a touch of envy.

Production: Stinking Heaven
Cast: Hannah Gross, Eleonore Dore, Keith Poulson, Deragh Campbell, Tallie Medel, Henry Douvry, Jason Giampietro, Jason Grisell, Eileen Kearney
Director: Nathan Silver
Story: Nathan Silver, Jack Dunphy
Producer: Rachel Wolther
Executive producers: Diane Lany, Jere B. Ford, Glen Wolther, Donna Rosen, R.J. Beavers
Director of photography: Adam Ginsberg
Production designer: Britni West
Editor: Stephen Gurewitz
Costume designer: Zoe Koke
Composer: Paul Grimstad

Not rated, 70 min.