Kombucha tea is brewed through controlled fermentation by a central fungal agent, a so-called “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast” that grants the surrounding water a murky, allegedly medicinal quality. While the drink’s curative claims have yet to be verified by actual scientific proof, it maintains a reputation as a health product, likely thanks to the prevalent conception that anything bitter, brackish, and otherwise without purpose must have some inherent restorative value. A similar notion fuels Stinking Heaven, a ’90s-set recovery drama concerning a suburban house full of former addicts, whose rehabilitation plan involves unsavory therapeutic programs, kombucha among them. Hoping to be healed by the combined efforts of a like-minded group, they become beleaguered by the same sort of gradual fungal suffusion as their beverage of choice, a knotty mass of unacknowledged conflicts and unresolved traumas steadily mucking up this overcrowded setting.
Building in momentum and intricacy since 2012’s Exit Elena, writer-director Nathan Silver has developed his skills as a director through a characteristically modern method, producing successive, highly analogous riffs on the same basic concept. Each of these short, punchy films has concentrated on questions of individual recovery and collective relationships, with brittle makeshift units aiming for redemption and finding hopeless entanglement instead. Last year’s Soft in the Head thrust an out-of-control addict into the confines of a group home for mentally unstable adults, her presence breaking down the place’s carefully preserved peace. Released earlier this year, Uncertain Terms followed a similar pattern of escalating disorder, this time at a retreat for young pregnant women, as the sudden appearance of the owner’s nephew pits the girls against each other.
This theme of a singular intrusion upsetting an already fragile balance is further developed by Stinking Heaven, which continues Silver’s shaggy, improvisational approach to stifling chamber drama, while also sharpening the potency of his lo-fi aesthetic. The story is kicked into motion with de facto patriarch Kevin (Henri Douvry) marrying fellow member Betty (Eleonore Hendricks), one of several indicators that this sober living arrangement is edging dangerously into culty incestuousness. Another appears soon after, as the matrimonial consummation takes place in a creaky bunk bed, with Kevin’s daughter, Courtney (Tallie Medel), lying awake in the same room. And things take a further downturn once Betty’s former girlfriend, Ann (Hannah Gross), herself fresh off a devastating subsequent breakup, shows up, nudging simmering conflicts into outright chaos.
As in Silver’s previous work, what could have been a rote retread of Pasolini’s Teorema blossoms into a study of factional identity and power dynamics. Once again, the sticking point remains that the intruder is as damaged as the frail beings on whose territory he or she is infringing, making for the formation of a new symbiotic relationship that brings equivalent pain to both sides. Here, the mounting conflict is less focused on a direct back and forth between the interloper and the other characters than a process of integration and digestion, ripples pooling outward as Ann’s issues become indistinguishable from those of the group as a whole. This means a finer detailing of collective connections and a firmer handle on symbolic shading. Ann is both a symbolic figure—her red hair signaling her demonic, disruptive status—and a suffering individual in her own right, another vivid character to be drawn under the umbrella of the film’s expansive humanism.
It’s that sense of empathy which sustains Stinking Heaven through its grimmer passages, as raw tensions boil over into hostility and tragedy. In this environment, where something as innocent as a sing-along can quickly devolve into a pitched battle, the potentially distracting home-movie visuals get a valid justification. Throughout the film, the repetition and exhaustion so flamboyantly presented by the narrative are thus matched by the shabby aesthetic and the accompanying focus on performance.
One of the main features of the house’s treatment system involves filming staged reenactments of painful moments, a questionable method that turns therapy into a communal activity, while opening up additional conduits for sniping and bullying. As in the work of John Cassavetes, where the dramatic exorcism of personal trauma helps create a dialogue on the relationship between performance and pain, Silver’s increasingly complex films imagine society as a shared space fraught with potential complications, one where inner turmoil finds ample room to fester and develop.