19 December, 2012

Review: "Sahkanaga" (****½)

Trevor Neuhoff stars in "Sahkanaga"

Nearly two years ago, I remember browsing through the 2011 Atlanta Film Festival lineup, stopping at a title with an unusual name and a 'made in Georgia' stamp. It didn't take me long to make the connection between the title "Sahkanaga" and the historic north Georgia town of Chickamauga. I vividly remember the news coverage of the Tri-State Crematory tragedy back in 2002 and in the years following, I often thought that a compelling film could be built around the incident. I suppose, then, that I was always going to be drawn towards this film. Writer-director John Henry Summerour makes a strikingly impressive debut.

What ultimately became a powerful ode to honesty and forgiveness was first born as a much more aggressive response to the small town disaster. Summerour, having grown up in Chickamauga, was working as an actor in New York City when he first began to write the screenplay. Having not been trained as a screenwriter, the first draft was more-or-less free form poetry. A remnant of that can perhaps be heard in the film, as our lead narrates some stunning verses, inspired by the "great blue hills of God." Regardless of how the film began or evolved, the final product is polished and meticulously preserved.

The film does not look like a major studio effort, and it shouldn't. Summerour worked for years, called in a lot of favors and spent his own small fortune to bring "Sahkanaga" to life. If you are familiar with northwestern Georgia at all, the film captures the sun-drenched slopes of Lookout Mountain perfectly. One risk that pays off is the mostly non-professional, local cast abounding with rich, sympathetic performances. Trevor Neuhoff and Kristin Rievley capture what it must have been like as a teenager forced into an issue that should be above your age bracket. Sharon Huey, as Lovey, handily walks away with the best supporting performance.

Kristin Rievley and Trevor Nuehoff star in "Sahkanaga"
While the word 'atmospheric' is all-too-often thrown around in reviews, I can't help but use it here. Swift, but careful, pacing, courtesy of an adept screenplay and astute editing, allows for the tension to be distributed evenly. An unflinching tone keeps from altering the audience's mood, letting the weight of what has happened rest evenly. From suspense, we move towards grief and then towards forgiveness. Paul Damian Hogan's score adds just the right hair-raising cues and goose-bumping stings.

I hesitate to compare filmmakers to one another because, hopefully, they each have a unique voice. But in his feature film debut, Summerour displays some incredible talent that did bring some modern cinematic masters to mind. The relationship between the screenplay and the film's visuals reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's first film, "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." The visual styles of Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami also came to mind. Summerour understands the effectiveness of a fixed camera and the impact that a single, unmoving frame can have in a scene. Natural light is used as much as possible, only assisting in the film's presentiment. While the compelling minimalism on display might be more a result of the small budget than it is the influence of Haneke or Kiarostami, Summerour has finely tuned each element to beautiful effect.

"Sahkanaga" has zigzagged all across its home state through film festivals, the Southern Circuit and finally, a theatrical run. This film's journey is nearing completion, but I look forward to the incredible career ahead of John Henry Summerour. Thankfully, he also plans to make his next film in Georgia.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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