The film was apparently eight years in the making, but “Sunshine Superman” happens to open just after the death of Dean Potter, which might color its rainbow feel-good spirit just a tad. Potter was the superstar BASE jumper who fell to earth in May after he illegally leaped off a very high place in Yosemite; another jumper died with him.
That event kindled some much-needed discussion about whether BASE jumpers are romantic daredevils or irresponsible adrenaline junkies who endanger themselves and others. Potter is not mentioned in this documentary, but his spirit — whichever side of the argument you fall on — is much in play.
The main figures here are Carl and Jean Boenish, pioneers in the BASE jumping practice. The movie re-creates the moment when the term BASE was coined — the letters stand for bridge, antenna, span, and Earth, things that can be jumped from. (The nerdiness of needing to invent that acronym, as well as the color-coded jumpsuits and the gung-ho planning, give a distinct Wes Anderson feel to this movement.)
Carl Boenish was an engineer and a parachutist who embraced filmmaking after getting hired to do aerial stunts for the 1969 John Frankenheimer picture “The Gypsy Moths.” He strapped a 16-millimeter film camera to his helmet and started throwing himself off cliffs and unfinished skyscrapers, thereby attracting the attention of like-minded enthusiasts as well as the authorities in places like Yosemite.
He also attracted Jean, an unnervingly calm presence who nevertheless jumped off plenty of high places with her husband.
First-time filmmaker Marah Strauch skillfully weaves together the Boenish story — full of copious vintage footage shot by Carl — with dramatizations and interviews. There are no contemporary interviews with Carl, for reasons that become clear halfway through the film, as we get the story on what happened in Norway in 1984 after Carl and Jean set a world record.
Carl Boenish is repeatedly heard insisting that “everything happens for a reason,” a mantra that can be used to justify a lot of crazy behavior. Strauch’s affection for this manic character undoubtedly explains the film’s festival success, along with the liberal deployment of shots of people gliding through the air to familiar ’70s pop tunes.
A note of demurral: I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie is like being around people so enthusiastic about their cause that they can’t acknowledge that their charismatic leader appears to have a screw loose. The rest of us are encouraged to share the enthusiasm, and perhaps you will, but a dash of skepticism might have made a better movie.
“Sunshine Superman”(two and a half stars)
Documentary portrait of Carl and Jean Boenish, pioneers in the practice of BASE jumping. This well-made tale has plenty of hair-raising vintage footage of people flinging themselves off cliffs and skyscrapers, although its uncritical look at the manic Carl Boenish might leave some viewers wishing for a little skepticism amid the feel-good vibes.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Showing: SIFF Cinema Uptown