Eileen Leahy takes a look at Michael McCudden’s debut feature Sodium Party, which recently screened at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, following on from its premiere at the IndieCork Film Festival.
Sodium Party, the debut feature from Michael McCudden, is an independently financed low-budget film whose ambitious scope is expertly realised through its visually arresting cinematography and accomplished performances. Its minuscule budget of €7,000 (which is probably less than the catering costs alone of most of the films we see these days) attests to the massive accomplishment the filmmakers achieved – and it manages to avoid the usual low-budget, artisan or guerrilla look and style.
This is an experimental film with an emphasis on the visual and aural elements over a cohesive narrative. It is a coming-of-age story involving a young girl who witnessed a tragic event and was subsequently cloistered by an over-protective and over-bearing mother. The death of her mother allows the grown-up Claire, played by Slaine Kelly, to leave her childhood home for college in the city, where she discovers romance and the kind of exciting nightlife that a modern city has to offer (and Dublin here becomes a stylish modern city – of coffee shops, bars and clubs – beautifully shot with a universal feel). All, of course, is not what it seems and her journey to independent adulthood becomes threatened by psychological distress – perhaps initiated by the re-emergence of her imaginary childhood friend or bought on by a degenerate paramour.
Sodium Party’s non-linear narrative creates a surreal drama from what could have been a typically Irish story of childhood trauma. This approach is a fresh departure from our national cinema’s working and reworking of themes involving the grip of the past over the present. With its nods to the female gothic and rootedness in melodrama genres, replete with all the psychological tropes of mental anguish, doubling and paranoia, alongside the strong characterisation of a female protagonist who is isolated from the social world and under the spell of some past trauma, this film creates an intriguing mix of classic stylisation and surreal experimentalism that demonstrates the influence of surrealist filmmakers such as David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet) and Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko). Somehow this approach detaches the story from its potential as national stereotype or cliché and gives it a universal flavour. The effect of found footage (in old Super 8 home-movie clips) features quite heavily, thus tapping into trends in contemporary visual art where found footage work has been in vogue over recent years – a trend that has been migrating to cinema (seen for example in Carmel Winter’s 2010 feature Snap). In addition the film plays with horror genres, with the horror staple of a troubled young woman confronting demons from her past, and speaks to indie/hipster cinema with its focus on Dublin’s urban party scene.
The film’s experimentalism makes for an uneven viewing experience and it is aimed at a particular audience who are already fans of this genre, although to my mind this is a film that could reach a mainstream audience. Sodium Party is full of disorienting flashbacks, fantasy and dream sequences. The precise era of the flashback sequences seem unreliable, which creates a temporal and spatial discontinuity and contributes to the film’s sense of unreality. As a result the narrative is continually under question and audiences can either approach it as a puzzle to unravel or as a psychological exploration, according to individual preference. In many ways this is the strength of the film: that it can engage on a variety of levels and remain open to interpretation. On the other hand, in some respects the ambiguity of the narrative and confusion as to timeframes produce a lack of authenticity that prevented this viewer, at least, from immediately entering into the world the film created. For the first half I found it too difficult to really believe in Claire and was distracted by the make-up, costume and settings, I wondered if the casting was wrong, surely the actress didn’t look the part of an ingénue emerging from a sheltered life. Then I realised that this just might be the point, it’s not a straightforward story after all. At the same time the flashbacks and fantasies were so visually arresting that they threatened to overwhelm the plot progression. But as the film came into its own over the second half such qualms and quibbles retreated into the background and I started to enjoy the experience. This makes me wonder if this is purely a personal foible as regards film style, or if it might be an issue with pacing. At any rate if you feel this film is not gripping you, give it a chance: it will grow on you as you watch.