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Morbid quirks abound in wry ‘Spirits’

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With the voices of:

Earl Gray Robert Levy

Gentian Violet Nancy Andrews

Victor Blue Chris Sullivan

Ida Blue Judith Rafael

Mother Beatrice Mary Lou Zelazny

Lydia Blue Melika Bass

Peabody Chis Harris

An animated feature produced, written, directed and scored by Chris Sullivan, with additional animation by Corinne Faiella and Shelley Dodson. Running time: 132 minutes. No MPAA rating (adult themes; brief nudity). Opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: February 26, 2013 6:17AM

Peculiar sentiments and wry details grace “Consuming Spirits,” Chris Sullivan’s idiosyncratic drama, which won the Chicago Award at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Besides voicing one character, Sullivan, a School of the Art Institute film prof, sings and plays seven instruments on the soundtrack of this homespun and handmade first feature.

Structured as “A Parable in Five Chapters,” “Consuming Spirits” unfolds in a dreary burg with the booster billboard: “Why Magusson? ‘Because we live here! That’s why!’ ” (Sullivan, an Allegheny County, Pa., native, names his locale Pawkagheny County.) Two Pennsylvania families — the Blues and the Grays — are impaired in all manner of ways. Sullivan sorts out their tangled histories as shabby lovers and fumbling caretakers. The cast includes an elder with dementia, a mentally ill mom, a nun hit by a school bus, a runaway with an Ani DiFranco tattoo, and the remains of a shaman placed in the local Museum of Natural Acts. Maimed deer and ill dolls recur as motifs.

Sullivan concocts eccentric names like Mother Superior Beatrice Elastica at the Holy Order of the Evacuated Sepulchre. Among the odd phrases uttered by his characters: “latex stump sock” and “blatant recreational blazes.” Botanical details include Towering Lousewort and Stinking Benjamin. In interviews, he has acknowledged a few autobiographical touches in the film.

Chicago photographer Robert Levy voices the key character, Earl Gray, host of the nightly radio show “Gardeners’ Corners.” Sponsors include the Manure Hut. Over the air and under police questioning, he will narrate a tale of morbid quirks. This raconteur is the film’s driving force.

His first shot is a black-and-white photo of Pittsburgh steel mills. The animated hands of Gentian Violet (voiced by Nancy Andrews) move this archival image, which turns into a panoramic pencil drawing. She does layout at the local newspaper, called the Daily Suggester, and takes photographs on the side. Her boyfriend, Victor Blue (Sullivan), does paste-up work there, finding photos to illustrate articles. While searching the county’s unclaimed cadaver files, he discovers that morgue employees drew crude portraits when there was no film on hand for photographing the deceased.

Sullivan likewise mixes up his methods: photo collages, pencil drawings, table-top models, paper cut-out puppets and stop-motion animation. The film’s animation style takes flight with the delusional tangents of its characters. Through their imaginations, we see scampering imps as well as outsized colleagues and loved ones. A child welfare agency will move a brother and sister to and from a foster family, and the local asylum will see mental incompetents come and go. But underneath all the melodrama beat wounded hearts yearning for solace.

Note: Filmmaker Chris Sullivan will attend screenings Friday and Jan. 31 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Bill Stamets is a locally based free-lance writer and reviewer.

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