Christine (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for a scene of disturbing violence and for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, Timothy Simons, Kim Shaw, John Cullum
Director: Antonio Campos
Screenplay: Craig Shilowich
Review published December 14, 2016
Although the films are vastly different in tone and intent, I couldn't help but compare the character (loosely based on a real person) of Christine Chubbuck in this film with that of Nadine in the comedy, The Edge of Seventeen. The only difference is that Nadine learns the valuable life lesson that she isn't the only depressed, dysfunctional loner who feels she doesn't belong in this world, while Christine becomes more convinced of it every single day.
Although the events from which Christine take place over forty years ago (in 1974), that didn't stop two different projects from coming forward with feature films centering around the subject, the other one an art film, also debuting at Sundance under the name Kate Plays Christine. This one takes a more straightforward approach, and though the film is based on a real person and a real incident, the script is mostly a work of either speculation or fiction, playing more like a character study than a biopic.
Christine Chubbuck (Hall, The BFG) is on the verge of turning 30, working as a news reporter for a local TV station in Sarasota, Florida (Savannah, GA substitutes). Her reports are more local human interest "think pieces" run under the name "Suncoast Digest", trying to give a sense of the community through positive stories about everyone's friends and neighbors. However, she feels she is hitting a wall, especially as her boss nixes many of her ideas because they just don't attract enough attention as crime and accident stories, reciting the mantra, "If it bleeds, it leads". With career, romance, and happiness seemingly just within reach, yet continuously getting snatched further away, Christine seems to be headed for a confrontation of just who she really is that needs to get resolved before someone gets hurt, including herself.
The strongest aspects of Christine comes through its terrific acting ensemble, with a very strong character performance in a leading role from Rebecca Hall, who seemingly gets lost playing this gal from the Midwest who has difficulty making connections with others around her, who find her awkward and off-putting, especially when she tries even harder to form bonds. Hall only had about twenty minutes of footage to study to try to get some of Chubbuck's mannerisms and vocal patterns down, and for the rest, she filled in with what she felt would be right for what she knew about the person in the moment. Supporting characters are just as strong, with yet another brilliant bit of character acting from actor/playwright Tracy Letts (Indignation), who seems to command the screen in just about every project he's involved with of late.
Although the film mostly plays like a drama with lighter comedic workplace comedy elements thrown in, I will say, without spoiling the reason why the film had been made at all, that there's an element of tragedy to Chubbuck's story that merits the exploration. This is a woman who is clearly suffering from psychological issues, as well as an ailment that causes her to experience perpetual physical pain, all the while also pushing her toward further emotional turmoil as many aspects of her life seem to be stalling out or declining altogether. Anxiety about her drowning because of these issues begins to strengthen, especially as every perceivable avenue for happiness and fulfillment seems to be closing off, and without a coping mechanism or circle of support around her she can rely on, it's a trial she may not be ready to face head on.
Directed with an authentic feel for the 1970s period from Antonio Campos (Simon Killer, Afterschool), which is especially commendable given that Campos had been born in 1983, Christine also touches on other rich thematic material, such as the glass ceiling for women in the 1970s (it's the bizarro side of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" which gets a cheeky nod in the film), especially in new markets, as well as the turn in philosophy from providing information toward pushing more sensational subjects on the viewing public to keep them locked in to the broadcast day after day (these events occurred around the same time that Paddy Chaevsky had been developing his script for the phenomenal 1976 sensationalized news industry satire, Network). Though much of Chubbuck's story here may be fictionalized, there is a truthful feeling to the film that makes it one that feels very much lived in, especially due to the rich performances and fleshed out characterizations provided by first-time screenwriter Craig Shilowich, who is a depression sufferer himself.
One other interesting aspect of Christine is that it is a rare character study biopic (of sorts) that doesn't go deeply into her internal mindset for us to understand Chubbuck as a person. Internal dialogue isn't presented, though camera techniques give you her feelings, especially of jealousy, as the object of her desires, the hunky news anchor, George (Michael C. Hall, Cold in July), seems to have eyes for others around her. On occasion, she will give us peeks: she does puppet theater at a children's hospital, where she is shown to perhaps be working out her problems in her mind as she ad-libs her puppet characterizations. There is also a fascinating scene later in the film where she inadvertently ends up at a group therapy meeting where she is asked a series of questions, and we find a particularly candid admission of many of her feelings of inadequacy at this point in her life emerge.
Although a smaller film, and overlooked by many awards organizations, Christine is still a quality film with potent messages and fine characterizations that are absorbing as they play. Although the subject matter deals with sensationalism, the fact that the film draws forth sensitivity in its approach to a news-worthy story and has empathy for its troubled main character is something worth applauding, especially since major studios might have "juiced up" Christine's story, ironically, for the purpose of driving more eyeballs to view it in the theaters.
©2016 Vince Leo