God Said, Ha!: Julia Sweeney’s Touching Monologue

South By Southwest Film Festival, Austin, Texas–In God Said, Ha!, Julia Sweeney, the gifted comedienne of “Saturday Night Live” fame, delivers an extended monologue that’s so exquisitely written, so emotionally touching–and so entertaining–that she manages the almost impossible task of captivating the audience for 85 minutes with quite a demanding material.

With no changes in set or costume, and with only minimal alteration of lighting, Sweeney recounts with dark humor a traumatic chapter in her life, when brother Mike struggled and lost a battle with cancer and she herself was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer. As Spaulding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy) has demonstrated, filmed monologues don’t have a particularly large theatrical appeal, but an entrepreneurial distributor should release the film in major urban markets, where sophisticated viewers are likely to support and enjoy such challenging fare. Clearly meant for the specialized theatrical circuit, pic’s video and cable prospects are strong.

The origins of God Said, Ha!, which was entirely financed by executive producer Quentin Tarantino (who also appears briefly at the end of the show), are just as interesting as the work itself. A recent divorcee, Sweeney felt a strong need to express publicly her anguish-ridden feelings. On Sunday nights, she performed at “The Uncabaret,” a West Hollywood alternative comedy club, where she would recite the heart-wrenching yet hilarious rants to a most appreciative audience. The response was so positive that she created a 45-minute show, which was then presented around L.A. The material continued to develop and before long it became a stage show directed by Greg Kachel, who’s now credited as the film’s co-producer.

When, Michael, Julia’s younger sibling, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, their parents left their residence in Spokane and moved into Julia’s Hollywood bungalow. Drawing on a similar situation to the one recently presented in Albert Brooks’ comedy, Mother, Sweeney relates in great detail the feelings of a mature daughter, long separated from her folks, as she is forced to live again in a tightly-knit family context. Impersonating each and every member of her family, Sweeney switches effortlessly from one character to another, recreating in the process a ferociously lively and candid family album that while very particular also contains enough universal elements to make it relevant to every urban dweller, male and female, gay and straight, young and old.

Standing in front of a simply decorated room, with just a sofa, lamp, candle and glass of water, Sweeney recounts the ordeals she valiantly underwent, centering on the encounters she had with individual doctors, medical procrastination, city bureaucracy—and above all daily interactions with her conservative parents, which often reduced her to a young girl ridden with guilt (the Catholic version) and blessed with an ultra-sensitive conscience.

Closely based on Kachel’s L.A. production, God Said, Ha! was shot in two days only. As director, Sweeney has the good sense of not endowing the monologue with an elaborately “cinematic” treatment, avoiding the customary visual devices and totally relying on the quality of the material. The strategy pays off: The audience is never distracted by any superfluous gimmick.

Sweeney benefits from having performed the work in San Francisco and L.A. for an extended period of time; there’s hardly a false note–or move–in the entire monologue. A terrific entertainer who knows exactly when a change of tone or mood is called for, Sweeney moves smoothly from light comedy to broad farce, from melodrama and sheer pathos, and back again.

Tech credits are good, particularly Fabienne Rawley’s splendid editing, which enriches the piece with a variable texture and mood. The title alludes to a card Sweeney received from a close friend while she was sick.