Full of life, the equal parts tragic and inspirational story of Carl Boenish makes for one of the best documentaries of the year.
Humorous, uplifting, terrifying, heartbreaking, tense and inspirational, normally it’d be nice if a film was able to successfully conjure up just one of these feelings. Sunshine Superman, the fantastic début of Marah Strauch, manages to pull them all off in what is bound to be one of the most entertaining and interesting documentaries of the year. It is the story of aerial cinematographer and creator of BASE jumping Carl Boenish who is responsible for some of the most breathtaking feats to come out of the emerging extreme sport. Carl was an incredibly eccentric, likable and talented aerial cinematographer/BASE jumper whose dedication to both crafts breathes so much life into nearly every moment of the film.
The film starts out with a somewhat overlong introduction to Carl, giving us a glimpse at his early childhood battle with polio as well as stories illustrating his dedication and work ethic. One of the more amusing tidbits being a story of how he beat every boy in his class in a foot race despite difficult circumstances. From there, we see it was Carl’s work on John Frankenheimer’s 1969 film The Gypsy Moths that ignited and fused together his two passions which would eventually lead to the creation of BASE jumping and many thrilling, sometimes illegal jumps. Amidst his skydiving work, Carl began to really test his limits with highly dangerous and exhilarating jumps like the ones he (and others) perform at the rock formation El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The El Capitan jumps also feature some of the most incredible footage the film has to offer thanks to the wealth of Carl’s footage the filmmakers were able to include as well as the makeshift contraptions Carl would use to elevate the footage beyond the simple point-and-shoot. Most of the film however is focused on two things, Carl’s relationship with his wife, Jean Boenish, and his jumps at the Troll Wall in Norway.
The Norway jumps bring about the most emotional and gripping scenes in the entire film beginning with the lead up to Carl and Jean’s world-record setting jump off the Troll Wall. This section of the film is truly wonderful as the dread and tension that builds in these scenes is among the best editing work I’ve seen in a film this year.
In a film filled with no shortage of death-defying stunts and wildly impressive jump sequences, Jean Boenish quietly becomes the most interesting element of the film. Seen as somewhat of an outsider at first by other jumpers, we see Jean’s development into an incredible BASE jumper in her own right take form over her years with Carl. While both are a little strange and eccentric in some ways, they appear a perfect fit when seen together in Carl’s old 16mm footage. And most importantly, Jean becomes arguably the strongest and bravest person in the film with her accomplishments in BASE jumping and the way she perseveres despite the tragedy such a passion can cause.
Like Jean, Carl is among the most interesting people you’ll find on screen this year. From the beginning of the film Carl is someone to root for and get invested in, one of the most charming personalities in a film this year, and I don’t think there’s a single shot where Carl isn’t sporting the most genuine of smiles. This was a guy who loved what he was doing and inspired those around him. His enthusiasm is so apparent and contagious that you feel like joining him on a thrilling jump, and that’s coming from someone with a crippling fear of heights.
With a documentary that entertains and intrigues as much as this one does, it’s hard to focus on the negative aspects of the film. But one of its biggest issues is Strauch’s over reliance on documentary crutches, such as over-produced reenactment scenes. While meant to make the film more captivating, these reenactments simply distract from subject matter and archival footage that is already so interesting that any cutting away just lessens the effect of the film. At times it rather played like a poor man’s Alex Gibney documentary, relatively unsurprising given Gibney is an executive producer on the film. Still, despite these flaws, Strauch does more right than wrong resulting in an incredible début film.
Sunshine Superman is available in theaters in limited release on May 22.