REVIEW: Sunshine Superman

USA/Norway/UK, 96 min.
Directed by Marah Strauch
Reviewed by Patrick Mullen

“The camera captures something not just for me but for everyone,” says BASE jumper Carl Boenish in the excellent doc Sunshine Superman. “I probably wouldn’t be doing this if not for the camera.” Thank goodness that Boenish was such an avid cinematographer, for Sunshine Superman features some of the most breathtaking imagery ever caught on film. The doc makes you feel as if you can fly.

Sunshine Superman marks an auspicious debut for director Marah Strauch as she delivers a visually and philosophically stirring film. Docs are more accessible than ever these days thanks to digital platforms and VOD, but Sunshine Superman reasserts the theatrical scope as the top banana of the film experience as the scale and grandeur of Strauch’s images and ideas take the form to great heights. Simply put: jumping from the top of a skyscraper probably isn’t half as exhilarating when it’s done from a laptop.

The amazing footage of Sunshine Superman comes primarily from Carl Boenish as the film chronicles his daredevil leaps from cliffs, towers, and cityscapes. Sunshine Superman gives audiences a direct point-of-view into the fall of the BASE jumpers, for Carl intuitively films each of his jumps with a camera mounted on his helmet and several others positioned around him along the descent. Sunshine Superman puts wind in your hair and awe in your chest as Strauch lets the audience live the experience for which Carl was a champion. Strauch lets film form play the roles of both the subject and the object, as Sunshine Superman takes filmmaking to extremes to convey Carl’s immediate lust for life.

Few films capture sunshine so beautifully this side of Terrence Malick, and the footage Strauch and fellow editors Eric Bruggenheim and Kevin McGuinness assemble from Carl’s collection comes together with soul-stirring warmth. Ditto the effective re-enactments, which blend seamlessly with the archival footage. Sunshine Superman re-creates the high and lust for life its subjects experience each time they leap from the precipices of reality and defy nature by flying through the air. It’s a rush.

The film expertly uses the experiential nature of the footage to work on the basic level of providing a kick of adrenaline, but Strauch assembles Boenish’s story using the mix of his home movies and interviews with Carl’s widow and fellow BASE jumpers for a higher purpose. Sunshine Superman offers a deep meditation of the limits one man may test and exceed. The film becomes intensely philosophical as the narrative reaches its tragic conclusion about testing the boundaries of natural law and manmade law.

Boenish’s own 16mm footage frequently inserts the magnitude of the test and the underlying fatalism that comes with such daring risks. Putting himself and the viewer in free fall for just a few seconds before the parachute rips open, Boenish’s home videos reveal the thrilling danger of leaping from such great heights. The rocky terrain and the busy cityscapes are equally threatening, but there’s absolutely no denying that reliving this experience through Boenish rousingly conveys the sense of being alive.

Strauch’s cinematic feat with Sunshine Superman is a testament to the human spirit. Sunshine Superman lets viewers live in the moment, thrilled and excited, and the freeing journey is a bracing affirmation of life. It’s one of the year’s very best films.

Reviewed at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.