In July 1974, a small-time Florida newscaster named Christine Chubbuck shot herself in the head on live TV.
An awkward and shy 29-year-old virgin, Chubbuck lived with her brother and divorced mother, to whom she complained about her loneliness and her disgust at the dumbing-down of TV news.
Chubbuck's suicide so readily invites a sensationalistic, sneering treatment that it's almost impossible to imagine it could be told any other way. To a cynical viewer, Chubbuck is easily dismissed as just another crazy freak.
The miracle of director Antonio Campos' Christine, which features a breathtaking lead performance by Rebecca Hall, is that it turns a potential sideshow into a thoroughly original, deeply felt, and intimate human story. Rich in dramatic detail and psychological insight, the film approaches its protagonist with genuine concern.
It restores Chubbuck's particularity and her humanity, inspiring in the viewer compassion instead of pity.
More miraculous yet, Christine, which is the first film written by indie producer and Voorhees native Craig Shilowich, transcends mere biography to reach something akin to a true modern tragedy.
It opens a space for Campos, who wrestled mightily with the effects of media exploitation in his remarkable debut feature Afterschool (2008), to explore themes of alienation that are as vital as they are universal.
Photographed beautifully in the many strange shades of brown, washed-out green, and wicked beige tones peculiar to the 1970s, Christine is enlivened with moments of wry humor. It never feels stilted or self-important.
The film is set during the final weeks of Chubbuck's life, delivering an almost microscopic portrayal of the character's descent into depression as it played out in her relationships.
There's her boss Michael (Tracy Letts), who chews her out for producing community-interest stories that are too serious, too bland, too bloodless. When he tells her to cover a fiery car crash, she refuses. "I've been very clear about this," Christine tells him, sounding just a little too pedantic. "I do issues reporting."
Michael comes off as a disappointed dad. He's an old news pro who once considered Christine a protégé with great promise, and his put-downs send her into crises of self-doubt. In one particularly wrenching scene, she stares at herself in the mirror, studying every line, every frown.
Then there's news anchor George (Dexter's Michael C. Hall), whom Christine desires with a hopeless ardor she works hard to suppress. He's terribly friendly and open. Yet to her, he seems so unapproachable that he might as well live on the moon.
Christine's depression deepens when she learns George is dating her only friend, sports reporter Jean (Maria Dizzia).
The only times the movie's Christine really succeeds at human connection is when she puts on a puppet show for handicapped children at the local hospital. The make-believe stories mirror her inner conflicts - in one, she teaches the kids how to be more confident and brave around other people.
Rebecca Hall is wondrous as Christine, delivering a sly performance that brings out her character's extraordinary intelligence. Her Christine has a peculiar brand of dry, subversive humor that takes aim at various absurdities of modern life and mass media.
At other times, she's self-deprecating to the point of self-annihilation. In Hall's hands, Christine doesn't come off as a victim, but as a figure from classical tragedy. Her fate seems inevitable, irrevocable. Yet no less heartbreaking.
3 1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Antonio Campos. WIth Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia. Distributed by The Orchard.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, including some sexual references; a scene of disturbing violence).
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.