Earl Gray is about the closest thing to a celebrity that the small Appalachian town of Magguson has. In Chris Sullivan's debut animated feature, Consuming Spirits, Gray (Robert Levy) hosts a gardening show on the local radio station, and the occasional event around town.
His commentary tends to start practical, morph into poetic reveries, and then become impassioned — sometimes aggressive or despairing rants. His gravelly voice and edge-of-sanity delivery call to mind an alternate-universe Garrison Keillor after a career-long bender of whiskey, cigarettes and disappointment. One caller to his show asks about using the ashes from a trash-burning bonfire as garden fertilizer; Gray recommends against it, calling them the "bitter remains of charred memories."
That phrase might well be applied to Sullivan's emotionally raw, thoroughly original film as well, a labor of painstaking (and, one suspects, pain-exorcising) love 15 years in the making. Sullivan incorporates autobiographical details from a childhood heavily influenced by social services intervention, and from that seed springs a story about the fallout of broken homes, poverty, alcoholism and mental illness in small-town America.
He tells that story in an experimental stew of animation styles, using stop-motion miniatures for establishing shots, multilayered moving cutouts for the primary action, surrealist pencil sketches for dreams and memories, and occasional animated newsprint clippings thrown into the mix as well.
The effect is that of disjointed, haunted reverie, of alternate realities colliding, soundtracked by mumbled asides and an uneasy murmur of background noise. Gray's story intersects with that of Gentian Violet (Nancy Andrews) and Victor Blue (Sullivan), a sad-sack pair of middle-aged lovers who work in the paste-up department of the local newspaper, play together in a traditional Irish music duo, and steal kisses at Violet's house when they can get away from her mother — who suffers from dementia and is prone to wildly inappropriate sexual comments and attending dinner in the nude.
As the film methodically unfolds (it clocks in at well over two hours, but the hypnotic effect of Sullivan's hallucinatory style prevents it from ever seeming overlong), it becomes apparent that the connections between these characters run back for years and are full of unsavory details long kept in the dark. In the film's opening minutes, a nun is run down in a traffic accident, and that event begins tearing down the walls that have obscured these secrets, initiating a freak show of a narrative.
Sullivan's Appalachian Gothic takes us into a convent chapel where the mother superior makes product endorsements part of her tour; a tiny local-history museum where unruly children chatter while being told about the ghoulish, recently found Indian corpse that's been hurriedly taxidermied and added to a display; and into the touched mind of Victor, a depressive, alcoholic man-child who drifts in and out of consciousness behind the wheel of his truck while listening to Gray's radio show.
At one point, while both of them are wallowing in a dirty haze of boozy desperation, Victor makes a clumsy case that he and Gentian are made for each other: They're both so ugly that no one else would pay either of them any mind anyway, he posits.
As rendered by Sullivan, it seems plausible: His visual style highlights and caricatures the most awkward aspects of his characters — misshapen features, exaggerated skin flaws and spots, bloodshot eyes, patchy hair — until they nearly become visual representations of their own insecurities.
Only it's not just these two. The entire world he's built is constructed of ugliness shot through with moments of unexpected beauty, like the light that shines through the stained glass at the convent, or the sinuous grace of Sullivan's pencil-sketched dream sequences.
His narrative is the same way. In a story built on ugly secrets and lifetimes of terrible events, small moments of beauty and redemption sneak through — proving that sometimes utilizing those bitter remnants of charred memories can prove more fruitful than Earl Gray thought. (Recommended)