Downtrodden and ragtag, yet resilient and animated in more ways than one, the protags of “Consuming Spirits” lead a hard-knock life in an Appalachian town rife with secrets. Shot frame-by-frame using models, multiplane paper cutouts and traditional pencil-drawn cartoons — sometimes in the same scene — this labor of love from do-it-all animator Chris Sullivan has the same rough-edged, cantankerous charms as the characters that populate it. Narrative alone is too uneven to captivate fully for the pic’s two-hour-plus duration, though there’s so much to see that “Spirits” should nonetheless prove a draw for adult auds, especially at regional fests.


Independent, feature-length U.S. animated films aimed squarely at grownups are rare, because of the cost and time involved in production, as Sullivan can no doubt confirm. He spent more than a decade working on “Spirits,” paying for everything either out of his own pocket or through funding provided by institutional fellowships such as the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations.


The multihyphenate filmmaker, who’s been involved in experimental animation since the late 1970s, and made the feature-length “Rume’s” in 1988, here handles everything from directing, writing and lensing to sound recording, composing and even doing some of the voicework. The major advantage is that the film, despite its constant juxtaposition of different animation techniques, feels entirely coherent, since it presents the vision of one individual in its most undiluted form. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story also contains autobiographical elements.


Though divided into chapters and littered with flashbacks, the underlying structure of the film is a simple triangle composed of three characters: Gentian Violet (voiced by Nancy Andrews), a snarly lady with three jobs including bus driver and newspaperwoman; her b.f. of sorts, Victor Blue (Sullivan), a timorous colleague at the paper whose miserable life has been dictated by forever bumbling social-services workers; and Earl Gray (Robert Levy), a cranky and wrinkly old man who has a radio show and a print column.


Though Gentian and Victor, who moonlight as the musical duo the Shalelies, initially seem mere acquaintances of Earl, the film’s first-reel bus accident, caused by Gentian, sets in motion a series of events that reveal the complicated ways in which the characters are connected.


Early on, the pic contains a good dose of darkly funny, often cynical dialogue and droll sight gags that give viewers something to savor as they try to connect the dots and make sense of the sprawling Appalachian microcosm conjured up by Sullivan, who doesn’t make audience identification easy — giving each character several jobs, hobbies and secrets buried in the past. But as the web slowly reveals itself, laughs are gradually replaced by a seriousness of tone and an underlying feeling of unpleasantness that signals these hand-drawn or cutout 2D characters have reached a critical mass of emotional weight.


That said, the tell-all finale, which evokes a profound sadness emotionally, doesn’t contain any revelations audiences could not have inferred already by themselves, making the pic feel protracted as it draws to a close.


Hodgepodge of animation styles gives the film a unique appearance that translates Sullivan’s ideas on the effects of memory, fantasy and wishful thinking visually, with the changing sizes of each character — and also indicates their psychological state. Jerkily animated movements and the somewhat rustic quality of the audio and song recordings help enhance the film’s overall sense of melancholy and authenticity.


Title is the answer to the riddle, “What’s the main reason for frequenting a bar?”

Consuming Spirits

  • Production: Produced, directed, written, edited by Chris Sullivan. Camera (color), Sullivan; music, Sullivan; sound, Sullivan; main animators, Sullivan, Corinne Faiella, Shelley Dodson. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Center, April 11, 2012. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- Viewpoints.) Running time: 136 MIN.
  • With: Voices: Robert Levy, Nancy Andrews, Chris Sullivan, Chris Harris, Judith Rafael, Mary Lou Zelazny.