A portrait of amateur rehab gone awry, the phenomenal Stinking Heaven sets down in early-90s Jersey, at a countercultural halfway house where the rate of attrition is just starting to spike. The film, by prolific writer-director Nathan Silver, is an analog immersion into the recent past (à la Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess) that’s all bad resolution and free-floating animus: Heaven was shot by Adam Ginsberg on a period-appropriate broadcast camera that blares Astroturf green around blown-out light sources, giving the impression that these people are literally emanating bile. Call it the New Hostility—a sort of rapid-fire sniping that’s infiltrated many recent micro-indies (from the collected works of Alex Ross Perry to the brotherhood opus The Mend), deriving from a very bitter cocktail of social-media outrage, the Gen X pickup art of negging, and the round dismissals that circulate through the novels of 20th-century Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard.
Stinking Heaven is the 32-year-old Silver’s fifth feature as a director; his more conventional fourth, the ensemble drama Uncertain Terms, which was set at a retreat for pregnant girls, played at Cinema Village just six months ago. Standout actresses Hannah Gross and Tallie Medell appear in both studies of not-quite-closed social systems, while joining them in Heaven are Keith Poulson (as the guy who sits at the head of the dinner table), Deragh Campbell (as his brittle wife), and Eleonore Hendricks (whose character eventually packs up and leaves, leading her new husband to relapse—and then pack up and leave himself). Neither idle nor industrious, the members of this quasi-commune hawk mason jars of “fermented healthy drink” out of their shared van for the price of $5 (about $9, inflation-adjusted)—they home-brew the kombucha in their bathtub, forcing them to wash outside under the sprinkler. It’s definitely something to do, but as a self-sustaining scheme the fungal-tea trade is, at least at this point in history, DOA: Early on, Poulson’s character visits his aunt to ask for money, and the ease of the transaction suggests that this has happened a lot more than once.
Silver’s partially improvised film—whose story was conceived by the director and Jack Dunphy—is just a tick over 70 minutes, but it packs in too much commotion to feel like short shrift as a feature. Busy and loud to begin with, Heaven crescendos into terminal histrionics during many of its living-room powwows. The first rule of the house strictly disallows any drugs or alcohol on the premises, and the collective does have a supposedly rehabilitative function—at least when no one’s trying to sneak a drink. But the “therapy” here looks more like the acting-exercise chaos from Out 1 than the earnest confessionals of the typical on-screen AA meeting: The assembly’s half-hearted sing-alongs are enough to turn any hippie anthem into a minor-key dirge; in a more hair-raising ritual, performers reenact their respective low points for the video camera ominously perched on a tripod in the corner of the room.
In one scene, a man pantomimes giving a blow job, and then flopping onto his back to incur a head injury, as he recounts some murky transaction that took place years ago in the shadow of Penn Station. Later, a woman smashes a chair, grabs a butter knife and goes after a spectator on the couch in a high-decibel re-creation of an escalating domestic dispute. To boil it down, absolutely nothing on display in Stinking Heaven seems salutary in the least. Perhaps the most sobering thing here is realizing that “clean living”—always clawing after catharsis, a sort of perpetual purging of negative emotional energy—is like any sort of living, only with the volume turned up.