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Putting the school teacher hat on, the word “sunset” is used as an adjective applied to the noun “years” as an idiom to describe the final years of one’s life often spend in retirement.  To a man, everyone wishes for those senior years to be a peaceful and happy time with friends and families.  Folks that age want to go out on their own terms, even if something derails or even accelerates that mortal timetable.  Few scenarios will destroy that resolve with more sobering terror than imminent destruction.

The looming threat of nuclear war presented within the independent film Sunset thrusts a heavy-hearted ordeal on a small cross-section of everyday people living near New York City.  Any blockbuster portending, ticking clocks, or manufactured heroics are decidedly off-screen, Periodic news bulletins keep the score, so to speak, but Sunset stays keenly personal.  This is about the people, their homes, and the fitting resolve to stay where one feels is right.

A surprise birthday party soaked in wine, spirits, stories, and jazz introduces our loosely connected ensemble.  The birthday girl is the Patricia (Barbara Bleier) and the get-together was arranged by her devoted husband Henry (Liam Mitchell).  She has a smiling simpleton son named Chris (David Johnson) from a previous marriage that lives with them. Their nearby friends include the successful financial analyst Ayden (Juri Henley-Cohn of Orange is the New Black), his wife Breyanna (Suzette Gunn, currently seen on TV’s The Good Fight), and the intriguing Julian (beloved veteran character actor Austin Pendleton of My Cousin Vinny and A Beautiful Mind), a close friend with former affections and connections to Patricia.  

This opening act of casual alcohol-fueled truths and storytelling enables us to see the intertwined personalities, personal histories, and character notes.  When the political stakes of the world degrade beyond their home, the days that follow replace the frivolity and optimism with worry and fear. The point-of-view of Patricia and Henry become the sympathetic core.  Director Jamison M. LoCascio’s sophomore feature film is a semi-”bottle film” that powerfully pings this automatic life lesson of empathetic choice.

LESSON #1: WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN THE UNIMAGINABLE BECOMES REALITY?-- Even presented as fiction, an audience member cannot help but ask themselves what they would do in this film’s situation.  How would they reflect, freak out, behave, be sensible, or resign themselves to the fates they would be faced with. How peaceful can someone remain, even a senior in their sunset years?

Extending their own 2017 short film to feature length with a fuller cast, these intriguing layers are well-written by LoCascio and his writing partner Adam Ambrosio (who also doubles as musical composer of a very slight underscore).  Sunset has won best film honors at the Manhattan Film Festival and Los Angeles Cinefest and the best ensemble prize at Los Angeles Film Awards.  This is a true and humble performance piece.

The truths that come out when facing inevitability make for very good performances from the actors, particularly the assuaging presence of Bleier.  She shares an excellent scene with Pendleton speaking his peace that elevates the interconnection. Sometimes the worst of people comes out when they are afraid, but even the younger duo that have more to live for (Henley-Cohn and Gunn) challenge our witnessed viewing.  One somewhat deflating weakness is the momentum-reducing infusion of over-explanation required for Johnson’s man-child Chris. A few too many scenes loose some edge when his innocent joviality is forced into play.

Nevertheless, like that first life lesson, the thought-provoking draws of Sunset create a fascinating and engrossing emotional tug.  It is quite admirable how the film generally, outside a prickly and strong group conversation or two to acknowledge the situation, avoids the background saber-rattling of feather-ruffling political finger-pointing and parallel retaliation and focuses on the human reactions.  Simply put, it doesn’t matter how the world got here. It’s about how these characters will survive it with dignity and composure. There’s excellent value to that experience with enough taut tension to rattle a few cores.

LESSON #2: STAY OR GO-- Getting more specific than the generalities of Lesson #1, the big decision point in Sunset comes with the order of evacuation.  Nuclear strikes to major metropolitan areas are considered imminent.  The choice then is simple. Stay or go. As before, we, the audience, try that choice of for size as well.  They will weigh the options and the consequences that may very well add up to unpreventable death. That said, how could any of us plan for that with any assured confidence over legitimate fears?

LESSON #3: WHERE IS YOUR HOME SPACE?-- Piling on the woulda-coulda-shoulda choices one more time, take this last lesson to be both literal and figurative as well as physical and emotional.  Where and with whom is “home” to you? How attached are you to that place and its people? Are you we willing to leave this proverbial home? What would push you to do so and what wouldn’t?  Sunset is a success because of the simplicity within the power of its mental hurdles outlined by these lessons and nightmarish prospects.