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Case Number 27375

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As High As the Sky

Cinema Libre // 2012 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Nazarewycz (Retired) // May 26th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Michael Nazarewycz refers to OCD as CDO, because that's the proper alphabetical order.

The Charge

Family is a messy word.

Opening Statement

To paraphrase Chris Rock, I've never been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but I understand.

There are certain things that I find myself "compelled" to do and I wonder which of those things are borne of habit and superstition versus true compulsion. I'll spare you the details, but the most glaring is the series of things I check before going to bed. (Let's just say I do more than make sure the front door is locked.) I also have a thing for Purell.

I don't know if what I do qualifies as being symptomatic of OCD, but I've always had a curiosity about the affliction, so when I read that a key characteristic of the lead character in an indie drama is that she suffers from OCD, I was intrigued to see how it would be handled.

Facts of the Case

Margaret (Caroline Fogarty, Waitress) has recently suffered a significant breakup. She now lives alone in a home that she cannot help but keep meticulous, constantly adjusting every object in the house—from pillows to coasters—so that each rests in its exact spot. Everything in her life has its set place.

That perfectly-controlled world spins in the opposite direction when Margaret's sister, Josephine (Bonnie McNeil, Red Poppies), and Josephine's 10-year-old daughter, Hannah (Laurel Porter The Yearbook), appear on her doorstep without warning, suitcases in hand and looking for a place to visit. Indefinitely. Josephine, some 13 years the senior, is Margaret's polar opposite, having lived a life closer to chaos than order, roaming from state to state and commune to commune, getting by any way she could.

The unexpected visit not only unsettles Margaret, it draws suspicion from the sisters' Aunts Deborah and Barbara (Dee Wallace and Jenny O'Hara, respectively), who speak with Margaret on a daily basis and wonder what has motivated Josephine to pay this surprise visit.

The Evidence

It's tempting to say that As High As the Sky is a beautiful film that finds its success in its simplicity, but that isn't quite right. There are complexities here that make it more than that.

Margaret's life (Order) and Josephine's life (Chaos) clash, and instantly. That's not simple to react to or manage through. There are unresolved issues between the sisters that date back to the loss of their parents decades prior, which are also not simple to reconcile.

All of this is complicated by several factors, including the introduction of Hannah into Margaret's life (and their bonding challenges), Margaret's significant struggles with getting over her recent breakup, and the involvement of the Aunts…which is such a clever conceit. The older ladies, who helped raise Margaret after her parents died, are only ever heard on the other end of the phone. I love this. It keeps the focus of the story on the sisters and Hannah, yet it involves the Aunts enough to keep them as judgmental influences on Margaret's shoulders (and the occasional—and welcomed—comic relief).

And don't worry. There is a fine twist late in the film, but it's so very natural, as opposed to some of the grandstand-y twists in movies today.

Also seemingly simple is that the film takes place almost exclusively inside Margaret's home, which isn't sparse so much as it's efficient in what it offers. Keeping a home this basic, this clean, this neat, and this orderly isn't easy; it takes considerable effort. (There is a wonderful scene when Hannah, left home alone at Margaret's, goes exploring and learns just how orderly Margaret keeps her life.) The introduction of change represents the introduction of chaos.

And yet…Nikki Braendlin makes her writing/directing debut look so effortless. Surely she could have been (may have been? was?) tempted to go down the August: Osage County route and turn the tale into some big, loud thing. Instead, she keeps focused on the heart of the story and sprinkles in thoughtful, tempered details, and rather than turn a play into some scene-chewable spectacle, she spins an original tale into a wonderful film that could very easily be converted into an intimate stage production.

As I said, it's tempting to say that As High As the Sky is a beautiful film that finds its success in its simplicity, but that isn't quite right. As High As the Sky is a beautiful film that finds its success in its lack of clutter, and its focus on what makes a good story a great film.

As High As the Sky offers one of those rare instances when the cinematography elevates the technical presentation, and not vice versa. Despite the occasional soft image from the 1.78:1 Anamorphic DVD presentation, this film is a collection of 24 pieces of art per second, as meticulously framed as the main character's life is meticulously organized. Cinematographer Tarin Anderson's color palate doesn't leap from the screen so much as it flows from it, offering rich and textured images. The Dolby Digital 2.0 English track does exactly what it needs to: present clear sound, be it dialogue or score. There is nothing about the film that demands anything more than that.

There are three extras with this film, which are all wonderful. I will add that any indie film which takes the time to add quality extras deserves a lot of credit, because there are some major releases that seem like they can't be bothered.

* The Writer's Room: Story and Character Development—This extra runs 9:45 and features Braendlin speaking to the camera (from one of the rooms in the house where the film was shot). Her presentation is conversational and intimate as she offers great insight into what her characters' intentions and actions are. It's more an excellent analytical evaluation of the characters than it is a rote summary of them.

* From Page to Screen: Filming and Visual Design—This might be the best extra I've ever watched on an independent film's disc. The 7:15 offering features Braendlin and her cinematographer, Tarin Anderson. It is a total nerd-out of the entire filming process, including camera specs, shot selections (at the character level!), lighting, challenges with reflections, and on and on. It also demonstrates the importance of communication between the director and the DP. It is a 7-minute classroom education that I truly wish had gone longer.

* Playing with Sound: Composing the Music—The writer/director makes one last appearance, this time with the film's composer, Kristen Baum. In this 7:15 featurette, the two discuss the intricacies of the film's score, how the music varies depending on the scene, and the differences between writing a score for a film that is not yet finished versus scoring a film that has mostly been shot.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

My only major concern with the film is its pace; there are times that it drags. It's clear that Braendlin is counting beats for dramatic effect, but I thought in some instances she counted several beats too many, to the detriment of the respective scenes. There are also editing choices could have been smoother.

Closing Statement

One of my daughters has expressed an interest in filmmaking. She's a little young yet, but if she continues down this vocational path, As High As the Sky is one of the films I will show her as an excellent example of the power of female filmmakers.

The Verdict

Not Guilty. Not Guilty. Not Guilty. Not Guilty. Not Guilty. (Yeah, that's five times.)

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 80
Story: 90
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Cinema Libre
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Comedy
• Drama
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes


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