The production of a low-budget horror movie filming at an old hospital becomes the petri dish for an offbeat, acridly amusing indie about the cinema’s legacy in depicting beauty and otherness, in writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s “Chained for Life.” Under the brusque direction of an arthouse German filmmaker (Charlie Korsmo, channeling Werner Herzog) making a “Freaks”-style tale of terror and pity, cheery movie star Mabel (the appealing Jess Weixler) is cast opposite Rosenthal (Adam Pearson, “Under the Skin”), a sweetly wry British non-actor cast for his severe facial deformity.
With an eye and ear toward the quirks and irritations attendant to a ragtag film set, Schimberg achieves an Altmanesque atmosphere of knowing, overheard eccentricity as he details Mabel’s and Rosenthal’s working relationship. But his real through line is a tartly funny, mildly surreal examination of discomfort, exploitation and storytelling viewpoint as it applies to the main cast and crew’s casual privilege and the disfigured or differently abled extras, who have to stay overnight at the partly-disused hospital.
When the latter start filming their own movie during their downtime, Schimberg does a nifty trick of folding the performed into the “real,” which wickedly turns into a commentary on just how much what we see in culture determines how we treat others. Anchored by Weixler’s and Pearson’s natural charm, “Chained for Life” stands up as both a quiet ode to the experimental, dreamlike spirit of moviemaking and a seriocomic corrective to sentimentalized sideshow portrayals.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 13, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles