Since her debut indie feature Sun Don't Shine, it is fair to say that Amy Seimetz's career has taken off, not only as an actor but as a writer, producer, and director of television. Seimetz's film received considerable buzz when it debuted at the SXSW Film Festival and was later nominated for a "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" Gotham Award, before being picked up for distribution by Factory 25. Given Seimetz's background as an actor, it might be expected that the film would contain terrific performances, which proved true. Yet the real surprise turned out to be the film's assured and poetic visual style. Sun Don't Shine is a character study— a film noir-like road movie set in the intense heat and blazing sun of the filmmaker's home state of Florida. Seimetz has indicated that the genesis of the film was a dream; Sun Don't Shine, plays with a number of different genres including suspense and horror, and feels very much like an extended nightmare.
The film begins with a shot of a young woman named Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil)— her head jerks up into the frame against a pure blue sky as she frantically gasps for air. She is in the midst of a violent scuffle with a young construction worker named Leo (Kentucker Audley). As she slaps and flails at him with dogged intensity, he defends himself by throwing her in the mud, knocking her down, and then shoving her up against the car. "We don’t need to keep talking about this," Leo tells her firmly, "but we need to keep going." Once in the car, he tries to placate her with a kiss, but she accuses him of trying to strangle her. After a long stare, he apologizes for breaking her cell phone. Crystal takes off her blouse and dangles it out the window like a homemade kite flapping in the breeze before letting it go.
It soon becomes obvious that the pair are in some type of deep trouble. As viewers we are not sure exactly why, but it's clear that Crystal can’t be helping the situation. We learn details of the missing back story incrementally, with strong clues in the glove compartment and trunk of the car. Sun Don't Shine's skeletal plot is much less important than the interaction between the two main characters which develops into an intense psychodrama.
An ubiquitous presence in indie cinema, Kate Lyn Sheil has acted in a number of indie films including Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel, Sophia Takal's Green, and Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets and The Zone yet this remains one of her best performances to date. As the film progresses her character becomes increasingly unhinged with multiple personalities surfacing— an obsessed lover, a little girl with a love of mermaids, a jealous seductress, a complete liar, and a pretty scary person. There is something about how Crystal seamlessly transforms into so many different people that's very unsettling, as if reality can shift on a dime. At one point, she shares her improbable fantasies of her and Leo's future life together: "I want to go on a boat with you, or an airplane." When she looks forward to their going grocery shopping together, Leo asks, "What made you think of that?" She responds, "Boats?"
Crystal begins to read off the names of various hotels they drive past and reminisces about a theatrical show she saw as a child: we see images of hotels, a peacock, and a dazzling image of fish and mermaids swimming underwater. As she continues to read the signs, Leo finally asks her to stop. Instead, she exults in a motel that happens to bear her name: Crystal Palms. But once they arrive at their destination, she becomes even more sullen as jealousy kicks in, a state initially conveyed by close-ups on her face and very subtle movements of her eyes. Leo's attempts to help Crystal seem noble at first, but he has his own demons.
Sun Don't Shine recalls a number of other movies— from Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970) and Kelly Reichardt's River of Grass (1994) to Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973)— but it resonates more as the result of a distinct vision. Seimetz is able to create a remarkable degree of suspense despite an economy of means.
Jay Keitel's superb 16mm cinematography contains lyrical and abstract passages shot both inside and outside the car. Early on, as it rains and the inside of the car steams up, Crystal draws a heart on the front windshield that slowly fades in the light. When Leo later drives off alone to rendezvous with his ex-girlfriend Terry, the car lights illuminating the inside of the tent gradually dim and disappear, turning Crystal's sad face into a dark silhouette.
In Amy Seimetz's haunting feature, it is not true love that binds these intimate strangers as they desperately try to navigate their troubled lives in a vast landscape of swampland under the harsh summer sun, but rather a sense of mutual blame. In Sun Don't Shine, geography and climate impact the very core of its characters, suggesting that Florida is really a state of mind.
Essay by J.J. Murphy Artistic Director, Wisconsin Film Festival Hamel Family Distinguished Chair in Communication Arts University of Wisconsin-Madison