Sunshine Superman (2014)
Editor’s Note: Sunshine Superman is out in limited release this Friday, May 22nd.
In 2008, James Marsh’s Man on Wire, a recounting of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, was one of the most talked about documentaries. At first glance, the film was merely a historical account of Petit’s quest and success, but it ended up being so much more. It hopped between archival footage and modern reenactments swiftly and skillfully, making the film more than just a simple documentary, becoming a heist thriller. A simple Google search would reveal the outcome of Petit’s excursion, but Marsh had viewers wrapped up in the intrigue. Sunshine Superman is cut from a similar cloth, but missing that little flourish that allowed Man on Wire to be so great.
Despite being somewhat of a “reach for your dreams” cliché, Carl wins you over anyway.
At the film’s center is a great story and even greater subject. Carl Boenish is an effervescent and passionate person and his finding of skydiving and later dogged devotion to it are shown beautifully. Despite being somewhat of a “reach for your dreams” cliché, Carl wins you over anyway. His smile is infectious and nothing can really illustrate just how enthused he is by the sport more than his own words, which director Marah Strauch is smart to use fully. Very little time is wasted on Carl’s childhood, because in all seriousness, this is a story about Carl as an adult. In some ways, Carl rediscovered his childlike wonder when he began skydiving, which is perhaps what makes him so giddy and explorative about it.
The film features the standard documentary talking heads, but as Carl was captivated by capturing his ventures on camera, we are treated to a plethora of miraculous archival footage. The editing is tight and exceedingly effective. The strength of Carl’s camerawork is on full display, and the editing team knows exactly when to get out of the way and let the footage speak for itself. While the fate of Carl is somewhat inevitable and his absence from any recent interviews tends to forecast what will come, Strauch is able to keep us focused on the events she is showing. There is a gentle build to the establishment of BASE jumping that is interesting and well told enough to keep us distracted from what will assuredly be a sad ending.
As Jean is introduced into the story, there is the thought that this will all become some big romantic tale. The thing is, this has already been a story of romance. Not between Carl and any person per se, but between Carl and the sport itself. He puts nothing before the act of falling, so as Jean comes in she offers further solidification of this idea. There really isn’t any doubt that Carl had a deep love for Jean or that their relationship was true. But skydiving always did come first and Jean’s acceptance and later thriving in the sport speaks clearly to the charm of Carl. He was the type of guy that commanded a room and could convince others to do things that they never would have otherwise. He was a man that always pushed for more and craved to expand what we saw as possible.
The cinematography is amazing in its ability to wordlessly convey the fear, excitement, and wonder that is inextricably tied to the sport.
That’s where the film hits a bit of a ceiling. The footage of Carl is mostly in interviews, post-jump, or him flying through the air. The leader of this skydiving movement cannot be there to tell his own story, and really he is its lifeblood. As many of the other interviewees reminisce on the wonder of Carl, warts and all, they seem incomplete and a bit hollow. Stories are being told and despite a generally appealing nature we never become fully involved. Rather than being enraptured in the tales, we sit quietly listening on the outside. That’s because our best possible storyteller isn’t around to do the telling. Without Carl, the film feels somehow mediocre. It drives you forward with excitement but ultimately fails to payoff. It is like being taken to the top of a cliff and then losing the nerve to make the leap. The view is incredible but it all ends up feeling like we aren’t getting all that we could.
Sunshine Superman is positively filled with mesmerizing cinematography stitched together with cohesive and stunningly unobtrusive editing. Its logline touts it as the story of the birth BASE jumping and while that certainly isn’t a lie, it is a bit misleading. This is a film about Carl Boenish. His spirit. His drive. His passion. As it is presented, with miraculous shots of human flight, it begs to be seen on the largest screen possible. The cinematography is amazing in its ability to wordlessly convey the fear, excitement, and wonder that is inextricably tied to the sport. The film is also overflowing with interesting tales of heist-like attempts at the first BASE jumps. Although, with Carl continuously the focus, these potentially riveting stories are given short shrift. They are told lackadaisically, making what was assuredly something difficult sound almost easy. As Carl is our subject, his absence from the film is always lingering. Rather than his charming us into utter adoration, we have his friends reminiscing on his eccentric ways and it isn’t nearly as effective. Sunshine Superman is a beautiful film, powered by skillful cinematography and seamless editing. Nevertheless, while it doesn’t ruin the impressive account that Marah Strauch has strung together, without Carl it is missing the spark it needs.
Sunshine Superman is a beautiful film, powered by skillful cinematography and seamless editing. Nevertheless, while it doesn’t ruin the impressive account that Marah Strauch has strung together, without Carl it is missing the spark it needs.