Video: The Soundless Fury of Kate Lyn Sheil
Framing the art of SUN DON’T SHINE actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s studied craft.
I can’t believe it’s only been two years since I first noticed Kate Lyn Sheil. Why do I feel like I’ve seen her in films for much longer than that? Some of my filmgoing colleagues, especially those who follow the contemporary American indie scene, might have such a feeling of familiarity due to Sheil’s workaholic ubiquity: by my count she’s had a starring role in seven indie features over the last two years, and appeared in a dozen others. I’ve seen six of these films, including three she stars in: Green, Empire Builder and Silver Bullets. That last film was the first time I saw her, and it climaxes with a shot of Sheil staring dead straight at the camera while streaming tears that I still can’t get out of my head. There’s something about her presence—a low-lidded ingenue dreaminess that masks a volcanic, self-destructive temperament—that’s so unmistakably authentic, so true in its youthful vulnerability and raging confusion, you wonder how there was a time the movies didn’t have it before.
If moments like her point-blank meltdown in Silver Bullets are unforgettable, it’s because they seem to come from a place buried way the hell beneath her placid wallflower demeanor. There are times in her films her eyes look out into an introversion of incalculable distance, and the wisp of her presence seems on the verge of evaporating from the screen—it’s stunning to consider how many films she’s appeared in, given how self-effacing she can be. These contradictions are what make her talent so compelling, especially given the raw, protean state in which they still seem to stew and bubble, even after making all these films. She’s studied acting at Tisch and Strasberg, so she has technique and philosophy behind her craft; but there’s something punky and defiant in how she refuses to play up to the dramatic needs of a story, with a sullenness that seems downright unprofessional. It’s a behavioral careening that flirts with career suicide, and it’s thrilling.
This turmoil comes to a head in Sun Don’t Shine, directed by the one person today with an even more exhausting filmography than Sheil’s, actress-producer-writer-director-editor Amy Seimetz. Sun Don’t Shine is itself a battle between the raw and the cooked, as these two wunderkinder, along with fellow multi-hyphenate Kentucker Audley, contend with casting a tried-and-true thin-thread lovers-on-the-run plot into the realm of pure character study. The emotional rollercoaster between the two leads plays out over oodles of close-ups in true Cassavetes pragmatic art film tradition (why spend money on sets and locations when you can stage your scenes upon faces?), and for the most part Sheil, Audley and Seimetz hold it together, most convincingly when they don’t capitulate to the dramatic pitch points dictated by Hollywood-style genre. It’s in those predictable high-stakes movie moments when the dialogue and emoting rattle off the backboard; conversely, the less scenery the actors have to chew, the more the truth of their characters are allowed to register.
In that spirit, I attempted an experiment somewhat motivated by an urge to get at the heart of the appeal of Kate Lyn Sheil, an actress I have no idea what to expect from in the future. She’s making forays into the big leagues, set to appear in the new HBO series created by Alex Ross Perry (in whose debut film Impolex she first had a starring role), and she also just landed a recurring role in the next season of Netflix’s House of Cards. I’m half-dreading what this new level of professionalism will do to her. So as a tribute (and hopefully not an elegy) to the rawness of this talent as we’ve known it, here’s a video compilation of all the scenes from Sun Don’t Shine that feature Sheil in close up, with no dialogue getting in the way of her ability to shine just by being.
It’s remarkable that these wordless moments make up one seventh of the film’s total runtime, and I think they reveal the film’s essence: its swooning shifts from one mood to the next, the irresolvable puzzle of its female lead whose mystery transcends words. I give Seimetz tremendous credit for embracing wordlessness as much as she does in this film, possibly taking a cue from Wanda, Barbara Loden’s masterpiece of metaphysical feminism. This video is also in the same spirit (but nowhere in the same league) as those great found footage tributes to ineffable female screen presences: Peter Tscherkassky‘s Outer Space, the final minutes of Olivier Assayas‘ Irma Vep that scratch Maggie Cheung into sublimity; and of course, Joseph Cornell’s immortal Rose Hobart.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. He tweets as alsolikelife.