Tribeca Review: Consuming Spirits


[From April 19th to the 29th, Flixist will bring you live coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

Almost 15 years in the making, one would hope that Consuming Spirits turned out good. It’s an ambitious work of 16mm animation from Chris Sullivan, done with 2D paper puppets, hand drawn images, and a bit of stop motion. If anything, there’s ambition in the film and its methods, especially at just over two hours long, and especially since it’s about the weird relationships people have with friends and family.

A recent review of the film said Consuming Spirits was like an Appalachian answer to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone. That sounds somewhat right, though I don’t really listen to much Garrison Keillor. For me it was a bit more like Todd Solondz and David Lynch gone Rust Belt, but even that seems off. It’s uncomfortable, it’s strange, sure, but there’s a human heart beating at the center of Consuming Spirits, and that kept me intrigued just as much as the strangeness.

Consuming Spirits
Director: Chris Sullivan
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

There are three main characters wandering the world of Consuming Spirits, and all of them work in some capacity for a local paper called The Daily Suggester. There’s Gentian Violet (everyone calls her “Genny” pronounced “Jenny”), a put-upon middle-aged woman who has to care for her mother with Alzheimer’s. She’s semi-dating the terminally odd Victor Blue, also middle-aged, and a horrible drunk. The two of them are in an amateur Irish folk group and have an awkward, fumbling relationship with each other.

The character that really makes the film is Earl Gray. He’s much older than Gentian and Victor and runs a radio call-in show called Gardener’s Corners. This might be where the Garrison Keillor comparisons come in. Early Gray sounds like Tom Waits by way of Garrison Keillor. His radio show is supposedly about providing gardening tips to listeners, but there are dark moments of emotional turmoil and autobiography that are laced into his responses.

In Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal (another Tribeca film), the movie begins with a guy hitting a deer on the road. Consuming Spirits one-ups that moment: it begins with Gentian driving a school bus and hitting a nun. There are a few other memorably morbid bits in the film as well.

I probably could have watched a movie that was just about Earl Gray. He’s got one of those compelling voices, just-right for radio, and his rambling observations have a bizarre poetry to them. What begins as an answer about ashes and fertilizer becomes a tense bit of deeply personal reminiscence that’s not stated or explored outright. We get catches of what he’s referring to as the film progresses. Gray was voiced by Robert Levy, and his sonorous, scratchy delivery is a perfect match to Sullivan’s weird writing.

But Gentian and Victor are both compelling as well, especially because they’re such sad people. You would look down on them in a film that was condescending in tone, but Sullivan’s writing makes you feel like you’re on the level with them. There’s an honesty to the way they’re depicted. Some of Victor’s alcohol problem is played for laughs, but they’re the sad kind of laughs that end in a wince. And Gentian’s obligation to her mother also has its fair share of sad laughter.

All the imagery in Consuming Spirits has a certain kind of rust and grime to it. It gets across the working-class surroundings as well as the beaten-down look of the people. Earl, Gentian, and Victor each have these painful emotional lives, and the town of Magusson seems to have had its fair share of depression. These are people and places that have been weathered and yet persist. Consuming Spirits depicts the dignity and sorrows in the grime.

The film’s story wanders and yet I felt compelled to watch the entire time. Again, a lot of that may have to do with the Gray character, and it may also have to do with Sullivan’s animation. The 2D paper puppets have a lot of personality. The puppet brings out the kindness in Earl, and also the sympathy in Gentian and Victor. There are some striking moments in the hand-drawn flashbacks, particularly one involving a large puddle. It’s tied to the larger story of the film, and it’s haunting.

There’s a really painful family story in Consuming Spirits about foster care and absent parents (and children) and surrogate parents. It’s explored with a dark sense of humor, careful observation, light touches, and just the right amount of wistfulness. When the film ends, it does so quietly and in an understated way, sort of like a radio sign-off, a kind reassuring “Goodnight” said from the doorway after story time’s over.

I hope Consuming Spirits will find a larger audience on the festival circuit and eventually winds up in art house theaters. Writing about it, thinking about it more, I really want to see it again. Every year of work was worth it.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.