Son of the Sunshine is an indie Toronto film about a young man with Tourette's syndrome whose family seems to be plagued by every social ill known to man, including poverty, disability, drug addiction, emotional abuse and incest.
It is a film that rejoices in highly convincing kitchen-sink realism, but also includes passages of artsy expressionism, while its plot hints at the supernatural.
It is a film that shows flashes of brilliance, including writer-director Ryan Ward's own performance as the alienated protagonist, but mainly it is a film that, for all its smallness, suffers from excess and confusion.
Sonny Johnns is a mass of tics, twitches and expletives, some involuntary and many, one suspects, voluntary as he lashes out at a world that always views him with alarm. When not wandering the downtown streets, he lives unhappily with his combative sister (Shantelle Canzanese) and his infantilizing mother (JoAnn Nordstrom), a sad figure who's disastrously drawn to the abusive man who supplies her heroin.
Just as his sister bolts, Sonny escapes too, undergoing a surgical procedure that may cure his symptoms. He meets a young woman in a park: Arielle (Rebecca McMahon) is often hostile or drunk, but no matter - she's offering a better kind of love than he gets at home. He moves into her apartment and even gets a job, abandoning his mother to her demons.
At this point Ward begins to hint, and then finally explain, that Sonny has a gift for healing the sick or the dying. Perhaps he is losing this gift as he conquers his disease. Ward's script, co-written with Matthew Heiti, is often cryptic. Is Sonny's surgical cure an illusion? (There is not currently a cure for Tourette's.) Can he really raise the dead?
Sometimes this fuzziness is a necessary strength: A definitive statement about Sonny's supernatural powers would be laughable, and the one place where the sister explains it to the girlfriend rings a false note. But the film also suffers from unfocused or incomplete storytelling that has lost sight of the viewer's needs. It is never clear, for example, where the family's apparently ex-urban home is located in relation to downtown Toronto or to the family farm where Sonny's grandmother lives with his uncle Leonard, a man who, for his part, suffers from a persistent vegetative state.
Besides, the supernatural theme is hardly the film's strong suit. It provides plot but is emotionally secondary to a remarkable story of suffering with scant doses of hope. Nordstrom is note-perfect as the hardened, yet collapsing single mother abandoned by her increasingly independent adult children; McMahon is remarkably affecting as the explosive Arielle, desperate for love yet quick to eject (literally) the men who offer it. Ward's own engrossing and utterly believable performance silently captures Sonny's alienation with moving accuracy.
On film, Ward attempts to illustrate that interior state through various expressive techniques, including a swirling image of Sonny's body curled into a fetal ball and many close-ups of his face. At one point, he includes a narrator reciting Leonard Cohen's definition of sainthood from his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers. Ward is often too elliptical for comfort, but this is one of several moments in this overpacked film where, on the contrary, you wish you could stay the young auteur's hand. If viewers must figure out the mechanics of Tourette's syndrome and resurrection for themselves, surely they can also decide how high to elevate the suffering Sonny.
Son of the Sunshine
- Written by Ryan Ward and Matthew Heiti
- Directed by Ryan Ward
- Starring Ryan Ward, Rebecca McMahon and JoAnn Nordstrom
- Classification: 14A