Tricks On The Bayou

Enter Sonny.

James Franco's face.

He’s 26 years old and returning to his New Orleans home after spending a few years in the army.

His mother raised him to be a prostitute.

Sonny is the only film Nicolas Cage ever directed. Starring James Franco in the titular role of Sonny, a male prostitute living through the early 1980’s, it jumps into an interesting premise with a group of four characters that deserve more exploration than they ultimately would get from John Carlen’s screenplay.

Sonny wants to leave his old life behind. His mother, Jewel (Brenda Blethyn), is distraught at the news. She trained him to be the best male prostitute around and the reaction his homecoming gets from former clients around the area suggest that at one time he was.

But having lived the life of a whore, as Sonny calls himself, has detached the young man from any sense of reality and has left him without any semblance of a true relationship. He’s never been a normal date that didn’t end in sex for money. When he meets his mother’s newest working girl Carol (Mena Suvari), a pretty little thing from Arkansas, he takes a distant interest.

You can be sure that there’s something awfully interesting and disgustingly fascinating about the damaged psyche that a person like Sonny would carry with them. When you pause for a minute and consider the reality – he was raised from the young pre-teen to learn how to have sex for a living – it’s disturbing. What Sonny’s character should be is a whirlwind of confusion, emotion and more. Some of that is shown. Sonny doesn’t know what to do with his life. Should he get out while he’s still young or keep doing what he’s good at? His reputation is such that no one knows him as anything else.

But where Sonny falls short from a purely observation perspective is that not enough time or care is giving to Sonny, his fledgling relationship with Carol and most importantly his connection with Henry (Harry Dean Stanton), the father figure in his life. It all exists right in front of us and we can pinpoint the emotional danger zones for each character and what makes them tick, but there simply isn’t enough.

Too much time is spent with Sonny in bed with his clients. Yes, that gives us an accurate and disturbing look into his life as a male prostitute, but does an entire length sequence need to be devoted to it just so we can see a payoff point of Sonny freaking out and going crazy that he’s getting shortchanged? I’m not so sure it added all that much to the film’s focal point.

Instead, spend more time looking at Sonny’s bond with Carol. It’s an innocent and distant relationship, with a lot of love going unspoken between the two, and they both seem to want out of their jobs as prostitutes. Sonny tried, Carol wants to try. That’s where they differ. The two don’t spend all that much time together, but when they do it’s clear that they get along. When the two have an intimate moment of conversation and bonding together, the film seems to be headed towards this new level of discussion.

But then we’re immediately subjected to a gap of nothing between the two, as the film jumps to another story point where Carol makes a shocking and important decision that obviously hits Sonny like a ton of bricks. He acts like he doesn’t care, but hardly says anything. It’s a very stubborn anger and will confuse the audience into trying to figure out what he actually thinks. But I guess that’s just the way some people are.

So while Cage’s film hits some marks with its characters, it never goes far enough. That said, Cage’s direction is fine. And when he makes his appearance late in the film as Acid Yellow, you’re remembered that this insanely awesome and maddening man was in fact behind the lens for the entirety of this film – which I actually hadn’t realized when I started watching the movie.

Acid Yellow, as seen through Sonny's very drunk eyes.

With a number of performances ranging from decent to good, Sonny is one of those films that could have been something special if it packed a little bit more of a punch. It carries emotional weight as it is, but it won’t be enough to remain as anything but a cult film, a microscope on Franco’s early acting career and essential piece needed for any Cage collection.

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