A grotesque incident that scandalized a northwestern Georgia community 10 years ago is fictionalized to surprising ends in “Sahkanaga.” Writer-helmer John Henry Summerour’s debut feature is a richly atmospheric drama that, despite its grisly hook, is ultimately far less interested in its tale’s suspense/horror aspects than in how such a public shock affects and reveals the character of local citizenry. Already well traveled on the midlevel fest circuit, the pic certainly merits theatrical exposure, though its queasily poetic mix of religion, sex and morbidity won’t be an easy sell.
In 2002, an anonymous tip led the Environmental Protection Agency to Tri-State Crematory outside Noble, Ga., where it turned out that more than 300 bodies scheduled for cremation had instead been left to rot in and around the property. Identifying the often far-decomposed remains proved a nightmare; some resulting lawsuits remain unresolved today. Just why owner Brent Marsh chose to provide fake remains while leaving actual cadavers exposed to the elements has never been clarified (he originally claimed his cremation oven had ceased to function, though this was disproven). Marsh received a 12-year prison sentence as well as lifelong probation.
Marsh’s screen equivalent, Chris (Charles Patterson), is a significant yet peripheral figure in “Sahkanaga.” Focus instead is on Paul (Trevor Neuhoff), an ordinary, slightly geeky small-town teen who happens to be the son of local funeral-home director (Chip Jones). It’s summer, and Paul would rather hang around with delinquent friend Scotty (Jace Flatt) than help Dad at work. He’s in hot water with Mom (Rhea Thurman) for getting rid of little sister Rachel’s (Laura Maynard) annoying pet kitten. He’s more pleasantly bothered by the presence of Lyla (Kristin Rievley), a pretty Atlanta girl whose mother has unceremoniously deposited her here with Lovey (Sharon Huey), the holy-roller widow of a local sheriff just killed in a bizarre accident.
Reluctantly going back to retrieve the cat where he abandoned it, Paul stumbles upon a body, and then realizes that the woods near the crematorium are full of them. He doesn’t immediately report this to the police or anyone else, partly because he’s intimidated by Chris (who’s noticed his presence in the area), partly because he’s unsure whether his father knows about this gross mistreatment of human remains.
When the truth does come out, Paul and his family find themselves pariahs, despite Dad’s furious protestations that he had no idea what Chris was up to. Amid the scandal and finger-pointing, many turn to the church for comfort, although some people prove less than charitable when it comes to forgiving others of trespasses they might not have actually committed.
“Sahkanaga” reps the rare U.S. feature outside the faith-based entertainment niche that operates from a sincere Christian viewpoint, yet is also critical of pious-seeming hypocrisy. Summerour conveys in subtle, impressionistic strokes how central faith is to this community; similarly, Paul’s troubled conscience and budding adolescent sexuality provide a naturalistic foreground from which the crematorium catastrophe is viewed with curiosity rather than sensationalism.
Reminiscent of early David Gordon Green in its ambivalent small-town lyricism, pic hits a textural/tonal ground somewhere between “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Blue Velvet,” much assisted by Damian Ward’s grainy, evocative Super 16 lensing. Mostly non-pro thesps (many cast in the area where the real-life events occurred and the pic was shot) are spot-on, other tech/design contributions assured.