Not long into the series premiere of Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan‘s sensational The Girlfriend Experience, a bracing abstraction of Steven Soderbergh‘s excellent film of the same name, the lead character, Christine (Riley Keough), has a sexual encounter with a man she meets at a bar, whom she tells quite frankly that she wants to have sex with. They go back to his place and make out, but when it comes to the next step in their intimate, physical activities, she moves to his couch, without him, and begins to masturbate; he follows her lead after a brief interval. It’s the first moment of the series, at least for me, where it was clear that this show was not going for the same sort of look-at-all-the-nudity eroticism that has sadly become the modus-operandi of HBO and Showtime, and the episodes that have followed only went to underline the fact that sex was a far more complex and intimate matter in The Girlfriend Experience than it is on, say, Game of Thrones or was on Boardwalk Empire.
The distance that not just Christine but the show on the whole approaches sex and relationships from does not denote an apprehensiveness or a worry over exploitation but rather connects to an emotional, distinctly feminine perspective that is being explored throughout the series. It’s a daring way of looking at some very familiar material, but it’s all the more shocking coming from Seimetz following her first and only feature thus far, Sun Don’t Shine, a thrilling, visually enveloping tale of lovers on the run in Florida. The film came out in 2013 and remains one of the great American debuts of this decade, as well as one of the best American independent films to see release in an increasingly aggressive and competitive landscape for burgeoning filmmakers.
The connective tissue for the show and the film, beyond Seimetz, is the actress Kate Lynn Sheil, who plays Christine’s friend and gateway to the world of prostitution in The Girlfriend Experience and inhabits the lead role of Crystal in Sun Don’t Shine. Her work in both is exemplary, the kind of rarified character work as a performer that is draining and even emotionally damaging, a subject that the actress explored with the filmmaker Robert Greene to moving and hypnotic effect in the yet-to-be-released Kate Plays Christine. Her performance in Sun Don’t Shine, however, is a riskier proposition than her limited work in The Girlfriend Experience, the kind of striking, frightening acting that puts your hairs on end. As Crystal, who is driving around Florida in a car with the body of her ex-husband in the trunk with her boyfriend, Leo (Kentucker Audley), Sheil expresses the kind of undiluted, uncontrollable passion that is so often typified as simply crazy and unworthy of empathy in so many other films that deal with somewhat similar subject matter.
That passion is as clear in Sheil’s acting as it is in Seimetz’s filmmaking, which is done largely in handheld compositions and remarkable close-ups, wrapping the viewer up in every twitch of the lip and dare of the eye that Leo and Crystal, the only two major characters in the film, make on their trip to dispose of the decaying body. What should be a simple noir premise is ripped and teared at the seams because of personal love and passion, the sort that borders on wild obsession and unwieldy desperation, and this stretches to the brief encounters with other characters. Leo’s affair with a slightly older waitress, played by Kit Gwin, suggests a casual affair that she takes more seriously than he does, evident in her forgiveness of his inarguably odd behavior when he arrives at her home; it’s his indulgence of her romantic yearnings that causes one of Crystal’s terrifying outbursts. Even beyond that, Leo and Crystal’s encounter with a helpful motorist (AJ Bowen of You’re Next and The House of the Devil) summons haunting feelings of loneliness and wanting to be worth something to others that reflect and feed into the central relationship.
At 72-minutes long, the film is mostly about the tense but convincingly strong connection that Crystal, a mother, and Leo keep up throughout this honest-to-god orderal. Crystal is clearly the more questioning of the two, constantly looking for small things to test where Leo’s head is at in relation to their situation while he seems mainly focused on finding a safe place to dump the body. While on the road, she shares personal stories of her childhood and adolescent years, feeding him bits of her life up till now in ways that suggest that even though Leo seems committed, he really doesn’t know her all that well at the end of the day. Her entire enterprise seems to be convincing him that the entire grotesque affair is more an act of love and protection done to bond two destined lovers than a grave crime which one or both of them will do substantial jail time for.
The entire film acts as a kind of manifesto against the belief that plot must drive successful films, independent or not. While Leo seems constantly aware of the pivotal problem, the MacGuffin of the film, Crystal keeps drawing him away from that thinking. In a pivotal scene, the couple stops at a bar and Leo attempts to drink his troubles away with a hefty dose of liquor, while she begins role playing as a woman who is trying to pick him up for a good time. What’s truly tremendous about the film is the way that Seimetz is able to recognize how distanced, even crazed Crystal is in each situation without disposing of her beliefs wholesale. There’s a bewitching aspect to the places Crystal mind goes, the yearning she feels to share with Leo even in their most dire state of being a couple, that Seimetz and Sheil crucially don’t rob the film of, and thus keep a potent sense of dramatic tension up for every second of the 70-plus minutes.
At one point, Crystal gets lost in a story about a mermaid that brings a man to life in a live-action theater piece at a dirt-cheap Florida attraction. She’s mesmerized by not only the actions and the skill required, but specifically by the core of the story: the idea of a woman bringing a man back from the brink of death. That’s ultimately what she believes she is for Leo, and while Keough’s character in The Girlfriend Experience specializes in a kind of popular performance, that of the attractive female who is sexually aroused and fascinated by the work and personality of men of all ages, races, and perspectives, she rarely loses sight of the gap between who she is and who she appears to be to these men. Sun Don’t Shine is ultimately the more rousing, unruly masterwork here, in that Crystal does not quite know where her fantasy of her and Leo begins and ends. In this, the ending is particularly telling, as she jumps into a stranger’s pool and swims like a mermaid as Leo seemingly gives himself up. Off-screen, we here a door swing close and a voice plainly asks “Do you want me to call the police?” In other words, this stranger is asking Crystal if she’s ready for reality, for the consequences of her very real crime to be enacted, to which she simply, heartbreakingly answers “Not yet.”