In all aspects of films, the trickiest part is categorizing it. What genre does it fall into? Who does it target? To whom does the film speak? It’s easy to do with most superhero films, while prestige pictures more often take more finesse. Then there are indie films, films which are designed, crafted, and cultivated to tell a specific story outside the perimeters of focus groups or market shares. These often get more personal (2019’s To Kid or Not to Kid, #LIKE, Storm) or existential (2018’s The Endless) in nature and are willing to push boundaries to push buttons (2019’s Long Lost) to get people thinking. So enters writer/director Mark Lewis’s Enthusiastic Sinners, a film from 2017 that hit digital services in August 2019 before a DVD release the following October. Lewis’s tale is one that appears, initially, to be a straight romantic tale. To categorize it as such would be too simple and clean, however, for Lewis’s tale of a 24-hour love story begs the audience to dig deeper, to question their own sense of lust and longing.
Officer Bruce Durant (Christopher Heard) responds to a call from dispatch regarding shots fired, arriving at the scene on high alert. What he finds, however, is a ticked off single mom, Shelby Harrison (Maggie Alexander), whose son and his friends were using a hammer on unused ammo. With the scene cleared, Bruce tries to leave, but there’s something about Shelby that keeps him there chatting until the chatting turns to something more and the two find themselves in a passionately physical, abrasively personal 24 hours of openness, sex, and connection.
From the outset, Lewis makes it clear that Sinners isn’t a tale of high-drama, but of personal stakes. Bruce is the first person we meet after a series of establishing shots, and the man is desperately trying not to fall asleep. The reason and the wherefores come later, but it’s clear that Bruce is a man not tuned in to his job and almost comedically startles himself as he nods off for a moment. To solidify the tone, Bruce’s race to the call-in location is scored by playful, up-beat tunes, rather than something more serious or dour. He’s not racing to a life-or-death scene, he’s headed on an adventure. What that adventure is and what it means for Durant is where the complexity comes in, and we’ll get to that soon. Combined with Lewis’s penchant for establishing shots of nature and cinematographer Ryan Balas’s ability to make each shot seem fresh and alive, Sinners quickly establishes itself as a story of exploration and renewal.
Narratively, Sinners is very simple. Two people, each at their own crossroads, meet in the right moment, under the right circumstances, and give themselves over to each other. Shelby’s husband died a year prior to cancer, Bruce is unhappily married, and each offer an opportunity to feel something the other hasn’t felt in some time. This is where the sense of renewal comes in for them both as they experience something emotional and physical as they rend their clothes off each other in their first of several moments of sexual pleasure. Lewis stages and shoots each sex scene in Sinners like fight scenes in action films, conveying personality, depth of character, ethics, and more. The camera work doesn’t always feel purposeful, bouncing or shifting with a hint of languidity, but in the most intimate moments Lewis never seems more on point. The first scene is comedic as the characters question each other about protection and sexual health, being strangely honest and forthcoming while stripping down, before it becomes absolutely primal in how they take to one another. Both Heard and Alexander are incredibly bold in this first scene and later sequences as virtually nothing is left to the imagination, their naked bodies as open for the audience as they are for each other. Lewis matches the ferocity of the characters in their initial coupling with direction that is constantly moving in close-ups, rarely lingering for too long, until a wider shot holds to focus on how Bruce and Shelby are consuming each other in their passion. Cleverly, each subsequent sexual engagement shifts in tone and vigor as the characters open up more and more and the direction begins to match. As Bruce and Shelby stop viewing the other as a means of sexual pleasure, but as an opportunity for real, honest connection, the direction becomes more still, it’s focus not on the physical nudity, but on the emotional.
With physical intimacy comes the more complex notions, demonstrating that Sinners isn’t all sex and no substance. Their sexual journey begins when Shelby puts forward the notion of living in the moment, absent the possibility of punishment. This seems freeing at first, to just gain pleasure without concern or care, and if that’s all Sinners is, the film would not linger as it does. This gets the narrative kicked off, but it’s the agreement of total honesty, of absolute confidence, that really gets things moving. Through wonderful nuanced performances from Heard and Alexander, the audience begins to understand what pulled the two strangers together and why their time together is so precious. For Shelby, Bruce represents an absence she’s felt since her husband became sick. For Bruce, Shelby offers an opportunity to speak his feelings without judgement. Their respective lives come with social responsibilities (of widow of an ill husband, of husband and father) that neither want to possess. Each actor conveys the heavy weight, the endless burden of their lives, with delicacy and grace, never seeming too much a savior or a mess, being realistic in their foibles and imperfections. Yet, neither rejects the other, even for sharing thoughts or concerns that their respective loved ones might shirk at. Each are, of course, absolutely disconnected from the other’s problems, allowing for an objectivity their families can’t offer. This makes them sympathetic within the story, enabling them to interact without judgement.
There’s an issue, though: there is judgement, if only from the audience. As lovely as the story is in dissecting the burden of responsibility; of stripping down the characters first physically, then emotionally; of comparing their overall arc with a return to nature’s simplicity; the power dynamic present cannot be ignored. It’s not that Bruce or Shelby ask for more than was promised at the start, it’s that Bruce’s choices impact not just himself but a living wife and children. The narrative offers an explanation for Bruce’s ability to rationalize the 24-hours with Shelby, it wants us to be ok with his decision, yet, no matter how wonderful the scene work is between the actors, how wonderful the chemistry, how caught up we become in wanting them to have more time together, Bruce is still doing something which, in its action, hurts someone else. For some audience members, particularly ones sensitive to infidelity, there is nothing within Sinners that makes Bruce’s choice seem valid. Does it make for compelling scene work? Absolutely. Does it establish a conflict between the two leads which must be surmounted? Indeed. But, if the title is to be taken in any kind of literal sense, there is only one sinner in the entire tale and he’s going to need to pay his debts.
For those who desire concreteness in their cinema, you won’t find it in Enthusiastic Sinners. Lewis intentionally only gives us what Bruce and Shelby offer from the moments before they meet to the moments after. There is no past or future with this story, only, to paraphrase Shelby, the present. What comes next is up for debate and argument, but Lewis’s film does raise pertinent questions of connection, human need, and needing to feel whole. No matter what you think of the journey of Bruce and Shelby, no matter what judgements you heap upon them, in the end, all they and we really want is to be seen and cherished. That ethereal feeling, without question, Lewis nails beautifully. If only the feeling didn’t have to destroy others to be explored.
Enthusiastic Sinners is available to watch on iTunes now.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.