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Sonny
cast: James Franco, Brenda Blethyn, Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassel, and Mena Suvari

director: Nicolas Cage

110 minutes (18) 2003 EV VHS rental
Also available to buy on DVD

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Debbie Moon
Sonny has just been discharged from the army, and is hoping to make a new life for himself. But he makes the fatal mistake of returning to New Orleans to visit his possessive, hysterical mother, a hard-nosed madam running a stable of prostitutes. The only life he's known is working for her as a gigolo - and he knows he has to get out of that while he still can. But jobs are hard to come by, his mother knows exactly how to manipulate him - and he's made the fatal mistake of falling in love with one of his mother's girls...
   It's easy to see why Nic Cage choose this piece for his directorial debut: it is, above all, an actor's movie, heaped with rich Southern melodrama and the kind of volatile, nuanced characters that every performer loves to sink their teeth into. Rising star James Franco seethes and rages as Sonny, longing for a normality that his upbringing and reputation seem sure to deny him. Brenda Blethyn piles on the make up, the melodrama, and the Louisiana accent as his incestuously inclined mother, and Harry Dean Stanton gives a fine performance as her decrepit handyman, resident shoplifter, and sometime lover, who doesn't want to see Sonny end up like him. Mena Suvari's sulky, determined Carol, who sees Sonny as the way out she so longs for, completes a quartet of excellent performances in what amounts to a four-hander.
   However, it's hard to know how to take the film as a whole. It's stagey and deliberately paced, often consisting of long static conversations. The pseudo-Tennessee Williams tone sits uneasily with its occasional pretensions to gritty realism, and the 1980s setting - it's hard to see why Sonny feels so trapped, and hard to believe he can't find some kind of work somewhere, if his often-stated determination to leave is real. And if it's not, then he's not so much trapped and manipulated as lazy and sulky, which hardly engages the audience's sympathies...
   Sonny is much more satisfying as a display of character acting than as a movie per se, but that's enough to make it a reasonable evening's entertainment, if you enjoy a good slice of Deep South Gothic. Nic Cage has a little developing to do as a director, but there have certainly been worse debut films than this.
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