A bruising, personal film based on the early-adolescent experience of director Allison Anders, “Things Behind the Sun” centers on the meeting between two people scarred by childhood rape and their struggle to piece together the past and move on. Slow-burning drama steadily accelerates a sense of indignation and horror but seems on less stable ground with its psychological perspective, which, along with some too tidy narrative solutions in the final act, may dampen critical response. However, its fine performances, keen evocation of rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles and potent emotional kick should provide some theatrical leverage for this digitally shot production.
Following “Grace of My Heart” and “Sugar Town,” this is Anders’ third consecutive feature to deal directly with music industry figures. And while music has been a key element in all of her films, the placement of both newly written and carefully chosen existing songs here to help shape character and mood is exceptional. (Driving original tunes are by indie band Sonic Youth, while notable use is made of forgotten hits by ’60s group The Left Banke.)
Rather than just being sprinkled in arbitrarily to lift the pace, or to sell CDs as is too often the case, the songs here serve to show the powerful effect music can have on people, as comfort, release, therapy, memory, escape or as a point of connection.
Central figure in the drama is hard-living smalltown singer-songwriter Sherry McGrale (Kim Dickens), now starting to get wider attention with an emotionally exposed college-radio hit about her fragmented memories of being raped as a young girl. This newfound success appears to have little impact on her life in Cocoa Beach, Fla., however, where she is arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior three years running on the same date and the same suburban lawn.
When a Hollywood music magazine decides to profile the singer, talented reporter Owen (Gabriel Mann) lands the assignment after confessing in an editorial meeting that he knows who raped her. Gaining access to Sherry despite the fierce vigilance of her manager and former lover Chuck (Don Cheadle), Owen discovers how little she actually recalls of the incident and of her past in general, given that her post-rape adolescence was spent in a dazed stupor.
Slowly, he sends out oblique hints about his connection to her, gradually bringing back recollections of their friendship in school and her visit to his house one afternoon where Owen’s sleazy older brother (Eric Stoltz) and his stoned friends brutally took advantage of her. As the full circumstances resurface, it becomes apparent that Owen also has blocked out painful details concerning his own role in the events of that day that left him similarly damaged.
Scripting with her “Border Radio” and “Sugar Town” collaborator Kurt Voss, Anders’ primary theme is the need to return to the past and unearth suppressed memories in order for healing to begin. While this is standard movie-of-the-week fodder, the raw treatment and controlled intensity here set it apart, as does the extension of the film’s gaze beyond the rape victim to examine also how the experience can affect men who are involved.
Where the film runs into trouble and stands to provoke knee-jerk opposition is in its treatment of Sherry’s post-rape sexuality. The singer’s need to degrade herself in violation scenarios in order to be turned on will be tough for most audiences to accept, Anders’ authority through firsthand experience of childhood rape notwithstanding. (This material is mild, however, by comparison with the psychologically abhorrent and dramatically exploitative take on the subsequent sexual preferences of a rape victim in “The General’s Daughter.”)
Clumsy writing further encumbers this strand when Sherry — whose failure to work through any of her problems has been established — launches improbably into therapy-speak about the rapists having colonized her desires. The script also becomes simplistic and Hollywood-pat in some of the wrap-up, with Owen giving up music journalism for more noble pursuits after filing a full account of the events and rounding up other rape survivors in order to keep his brother in prison, where he’s doing time for armed robbery.
But despite some questionable choices, the complex, moving drama has considerable emotional impact, thanks in part to the general sobriety of Anders’ approach. This is reflected too in the strong cast, ably led by relative newcomer Dickens.
Playing a character prone to drinking binges and out-of-control behavior, the actress nonetheless conveys the woman’s pain, anger and tragic vulnerability in quietly measured terms that make her performance all the more affecting. Dickens also makes a convincing rocker during her onstage musical numbers. Sherry’s singing voice was dubbed by Kristen Vigard, who stood in for Ileanna Douglas in “Grace of My Heart.”
Mann has the weakest role but he creates a sensitive, sympathetic character, while Cheadle continues to prove himself a singularly resourceful actor, bringing a poignant sense of Chuck’s loyalty to Sherry, his deep emotional investment and his urge to protect and nurture her.
Some cast members from previous Anders films appear briefly: In addition to Stoltz, who gives a tough turn as an irredeemable lowlife, Patsy Kensit plays a club-owner and Rosanna Arquette turns up as the cynical magazine editor. Also in fleetingly, Elizabeth Pena has a beautifully gauged scene as a woman now raising her family in the house where Sherry’s rape took place.
While the freedom of shooting on digital often encourages directors to keep the camera constantly on the move, Anders and d.p. Terry Stacey instead opt for a restrained approach, effectively letting the action play out within a comparatively calm visual field.