In Robert Greene’s engrossing new film (expertly shot by Sean Price Williams), “Kate Plays Christine,” he watches actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play Christine Chubbick, a TV reporter at a local Florida station who committed suicide on-air in 1974.
Sheil begins her research with an article on Chubbick by Sally Quinn for the Washington Post. She temporarily moves to an apartment in Sarasota, to meet people who knew the newscaster. Chubbick’s mother tells Sheil that Christine “was out-of-gear with other people.” From colleagues, Sheil learns that she was good at her job, worked hard and fought with her news director about her stories getting bumped for more sensational reports. Sheil listens carefully without expressing judgement.
Asking “how do we know someone?”, Sheil approaches Chubbick psychologically (believing she was lonely and suffered from depression), trying to feel comfortable (or more appropriately, ill-at-ease) in her subject’s skin. She also tries to reach her through her exterior appearance, with a long dark wig , brown contact lenses, a salon spray tan and vintage outfits. Sheil buys a gun from a local store, the Bullet Hole, as Chubbick did.
Sheil becomes protective of Chubbick, empathetic, unwilling to exploit her suicide to feed our culture’s fascination with violence. But when she ferociously acts out on set, condemning the crew as “fucking sadists,” the emphasis is on acting. We’re watching, as we have been, “Kate.”
Greene slowly reveals the jolting surprise at the heart of the film–the documentary is based on a fiction: the Christine Chubbick feature doesn’t exist. Sheil’s probing prep is the film’s riveting and emotional performance.
“Kate Plays Christine” opens today at IFC Center. There will be Q&As today through Saturday with Robert Greene with guest moderators. A further rollout will follow.