In the unnerving Sun Choke, a sick woman spreads her damage around

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Sarah Hagan has had two memorably substantial roles in her career thus far—both on television, and both over a decade ago. She was the rigorously prim mathlete Millie on Freaks And Geeks, and played Amanda, one of the “potentials” in the final season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Since the early 2000s, Hagan’s mostly been relegated to guest shots and bit parts, but that should change after her striking leading performance as the mentally disturbed Los Angeles heiress Janie in writer-director Ben Cresciman’s moody thriller Sun Choke. The film doesn’t always work as a genre exercise, but it’s a winner as a character study, in large part because of how committed Hagan is to playing Janie’s derangement. Casting directors in search of the offbeat should take note.

Hagan’s well-matched, too, by legendary “scream queen” Barbara Crampton, who plays Irma, Janie’s combination caretaker, psychologist, and wicked stepmother. In Sun Choke’s early scenes, Cresciman establishes the routine for Janie and Irma, which involves meditation, medication, and a kind of aversion therapy involving the painful sonic frequencies of a tuning fork. Then Irma decides that Janie has been well-behaved enough to attempt some unsupervised excursions, which is how Janie meets Savannah (played by Sara Malakul Lane), a young woman who looks a lot like her, and with whom she quickly becomes dangerously obsessed. The middle section of Sun Choke is an effectively creepy cycle of the heroine spending her free hours playing stalker/voyeur, and then coming home to her usual regimen of chemical and psychological torture at Irma’s hands.

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