Hundreds of films see video release every year but even more nev­er make it to any kind of release.  This is espe­cial­ly true for the inde­pen­dent film mar­ket, where count­less films lan­guish with­out ever mak­ing it to an audi­ence.  Thankfully, there are video labels that are will­ing to exper­i­ment with small­er films.  Synapse Films is a note­wor­thy exam­ple and has real­ly expand­ed its reach in the last few years to take in this kind of cin­e­mat­ic orphan.  South Of Heaven is their lat­est release in this vein — and they’ve given it the same kind of lov­ing care that their bet­ter known gen­re releas­es receive.

South Of Heaven is skill­ful­ly shot for a low-bud­get indie and Synapse’s DVD does jus­tice to its unique look, which offers a unique blend of shad­owy inte­ri­ors and atten­tion-get­ting pri­ma­ry col­ors.  The anamor­phic image is free of debris and looks quite crisp.  Equal atten­tion has been given to the audio area, with 2.0 and 5.1 stereo mix­es.  The 5.1 mix was lis­tened to for this review: its blend of ele­ments is clear and it makes strong use of Russ Howard III’s rich­ly-tex­tured musi­cal score.

Extras are also plen­ti­ful on this disc.  For starters, there is a whop­ping three(!) com­men­tary tracks on this disc.  The first is a film­mak­er com­men­tary that includes writer/director J.L. Vara, cin­e­matog­ra­pher Darren Genet and pro­duc­ers Brian Udovitch and Jason Polstein.  Vara takes the lead from the get-go and leads the lis­ten­er through a fast-paced stream of com­ments that out­line the many influ­ences he incor­po­rat­ed into his script and visu­als.  The oth­ers do a fine job of back­ing him up, out­lin­ing the on-a-shoe­string nature of how the pro­duc­tion was assem­bled and the many tricks involved in mak­ing the film look big­ger than it is.  There is also a lot of praise for Shea Whigham’s act­ing chops and ded­i­ca­tion to his role.

The cast com­men­tary fea­tures Adam & Aaron Née, Shea Whigham and Jonathan Gries.  Everyone has some­thing worth­while to offer here as the quar­tet dis­cuss­es the intense lev­el of ded­i­ca­tion the film’s dia­logue and char­ac­ter­i­za­tions required, with each effec­tive­ly con­vey­ing the choic­es they made to make it work onscreen and the ded­i­ca­tion required to pull it off.  Gries in par­tic­u­lar is a fun sto­ry­teller, with some amus­ing sto­ries about his inter­play off­screen with onscreen part­ner Thomas Jay Ryan.

The final com­men­tary fea­tures a trio of film crit­ics: Devin Faraci from Badass Digest, Scott Weinberg from Fearnet and Todd Brown from Twitch.  Sadly, it doesn’t have much to offer.  Critical com­men­taries work best when the film is a clas­sic that can be researched or pair the crit­ic with the film­mak­er.  The crit­ics on this com­men­tary are enthu­si­as­tic about the film and offer some inter­est­ing com­men­tary ear­ly on but they run out of mate­ri­al after 30 min­utes.  They also com­mit a pret­ty embar­rass­ing gaffe when they misiden­ti­fy actress Elina Lowensohn and ques­tion why she used a “strange” accent (it’s her real accent and she’s a fair­ly pro­lific indie and for­eign film actress).  The rest of the track devolves into padding, includ­ing grip­ing about unap­pre­cia­tive read­ers and mak­ing boo­bie jokes.  There is one inter­est­ing sto­ry about how a par­tic­u­lar Smiths song was licensed for the film near the end but it’s a bit of a slog to get there.

The remain­ing extras are three of Vara’s stu­dent films: Miserable Orphan, Azole Dkmuntch and A Boy And His Fetus.  These are pret­ty tough to sit through, by design: they are self-con­scious­ly art­sy, dark to the point of mor­bid, more than a lit­tle pre­ten­tious and astrin­gent in both sto­ry­line and tech­nique. They also tend to be over­long, lack­ing the nar­ra­tive econ­o­my Vara would bring to his first fea­ture.  That said, any­one who loves the main fea­ture will find them of archival inter­est as they rep­re­sent Vara’s ear­ly work with col­lab­o­ra­tors who would be impor­tant to South Of Heaven, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Née broth­ers.

To sum up, this is a sur­pris­ing­ly deluxe edi­tion for such a small film and Synapse deserves kudos for giv­ing this uncom­pro­mis­ing film such a pro­fes­sion­al treat­ment.  If your taste extends to edgy indie fare, South Of Heaven is worth a look.