Things Behind the Sun (2001): Allison Anders Melodrama

Sundance Festival Premiere, Jan 2001–After a number of disappointing films, Allison Anders is back on terra ferma with Things Behind the Sun, a personal, emotionally touching film that’s thematically linked to Gas Food Lodging, her first solo directorial effort.

Juxtaposing two people placed on opposite sides of the same crime, this raw tale reconstructs a brutal rape and its long-lasting devastating effects on all participants involved. The film suffers from a soft and neat resolution that negates the raucous nature of the narrative, but, fortunately, it proves to be a minor problem in an otherwise well-shot and well-acted film that should get some theatrical bookings beyond the festival circuit.

Anders’ career enjoyed an auspicious beginning with Gas Food Lodging, but then she stumbled with incoherent pictures, such as Mi Vida Loca, that suffered from overexplicit dialogue and little dramatic sense. Nonetheless, even the weak films displayed unkempt vitality, vivid sense of color, and, most important of all, appreciation for working-class heroines who seldom occupy center-stage in Hollywood or indiehood.

“I’ve always turned what was shameful in my life into this kind of boastfulness,” Anders said a decade ago, and indeed, her early films incorporated elements from her personal life as a product of a broken home, an unwed mother, and so on. Things Behind draws on a painful rape in Anders’ past as well as on her love for music. Music has always played an important part in Anders’ work, and not just in the films situated in the music world (Grace of My Heart, Sugartown).

The protagonist is Sherry (Kim Dickens), a lusty and vivacious up-and-coming singer-songwriter who works in the touch-and-tender female rock tradition. Sherry’s new album hits the desk of Owen (Gabriel Mann), an ambitious L.A. rock journalist searching for the big story. After listening to Sherry’s song, he becomes intrigued by its lyrics and proposes to do a piece on her. Gabriel hits the road to Florida, where Sherry performs, and, after tumultuous encounters with her and her protective manager (Don Cheadle) who’s still in love with her, he begins to interview her in sessions imbued with erotic tension.

The ensuing tale presents a portrait of two drifting souls, unhinged by the same childhood catastrophe: Sherry’s gang rape by Owen’s brother (Eric Stoltz) and his friends, with Owen as a witness and reluctant participant. Anders conveys vividly Sherry and Owen’s existence as it’s defined by sex, drugs, and hard rock, their precarious dance on the edge of destruction, and finally, their slow and painful journey back from the dark to a healthier and more balanced existence.

Anders steers clear of the therapeutic sensibility that defines TV-Movie of the Week; Things Behind is emotional but not sentimental (except for the ending). The duality of P.O.V, showing the rape and its ruinous consequences from the perspective of the victim and perpetrators, also endows the film with a unique angle seldom seen before.

If Things Behind is Anders’ most mature film, it because it’s the first work in which she achieves a measure of distance from her central creative neurosis, which could be described as the search for a missing male. Unlike Grace of My Heart, which is the story a songwriter for whom no amount of success will make up for the absent man in her life, in the new movie, Sherry’s identity is more dependent on her talent and career than on her relationships with men.