Home Video Hovel: Sonny Boy, by Alexander Miller
What do you do with Sonny Boy? This nasty bit of cinema is something else, the list of adjectives and influences stretch on for miles; Sonny Boy honestly defies categorization. It’s about a patriarchal crime boss named Slue (Paul Smith) and his transvestite wife Pearl (David Carradine), who adopt the titular bundle of joy from the backseat of a stolen car brought to them by their underlying Weasel (Brad Dourif). They raise their new addition to the family in captivity, torturing Sonny to be an instrument in their dubious criminal enterprise. The psychotic Slue lords over Harmony, New Mexico, where he and his informal family of babbling cronies engage in all manner of unlawful shenanigans, from petty theft to dispatching nosy cops with a howitzer cannon if need be. However, their real pride and joy is the feral and savage Sonny Boy who they’ve raised as a killing machine after years in captivity.
Sonny Boy is a film that revels in dehumanization, torture, violence and sadism; there’s about maybe 1½ decent people in the movie and those who aren’t twisted are just downright weird. Having said all that, how can a film like Sonny Boy work?
On paper, the film sounds like an assaultive piece of shit, but of course, in the cult movie tradition, subversive content is elevated by substance and superlative performances. For instance hearing “trans” associated with an exploitation movie usually sends shudders down my spine, but director Robert Martin Carroll and David Carradine convey zero transphobia in the latter’s dress-clad performance. Sydney Lassick and Brad Dourif are terrific; Lassick revisits the twitchy demeanor we saw in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Dourif’s frenetic energy steals the show. Michael Boston (in his sole starring role) is tasked with playing the feral titular character; no easy feat, but he gets the job done.
In spite of being tonally repellent, Sonny Boy doesn’t take the easy way out by surrendering itself to full tilt exploitation, countering that subset of b-cinema the direction of the film successfully hits multiple narrative beats. The man-made monster storyline unfolds with credibility; the result is somewhat garbled, but Sonny Boy knows what kind of film it wants to be. Carroll and a terrific cast bring a finite level of humanity to these very inhuman characters, which is something of a miracle, there’re even touches of intentional comedy to boot. That’s not to say that the Slue clan is made sympathetic or charming, after all, their leader tortured a child into becoming a trained killer, how endearing can these people be?
Once the rock is turned over, you see the allegorical potential in this grim fable – unfortunately Slue isn’t the first to practice child soldiering. Whether or not this is the motivation for the film doesn’t make it any less unpleasant; however, I admire the bravery and cavalier spirit that spearheaded this project. I always applaud a movie that shows me something I’ve never seen before and Sonny Boy delivers on that presumption in spades. I mean where else are you going to see a shotgun sporting David Carradine blasting through a window in full dress?
The result is an irrefutably strange and folky tale of the most demented interpretation of family values. Regardless of metaphors and analogies, Sonny Boy is a film that needs to be seen to be believed. It might sound like a cliche to say a movie is undefinable, but Sonny Boy hovers in an orbit of its own. This crash course into full-blown hallucinatory strangeness contains moments of wanton brutality, but it’s also unexpectedly sincere. Until this Scream Factory Blu-ray release, Sonny Boy has been a sought-after cult item with little exposure, how the hell do you sell this movie? Due to its off-putting content, Sonny Boy barely saw the light of day theatrically, now it has an appropriate home with many other critically panned but beloved cult items in the Scream Factory canon. The two audio commentaries provide some necessary insight to a film as bizarre as this. Fans of the cruel and unusual have a head start; cult movie enthusiasts are in second, curiosity seekers, you’ve been warned. What exactly do you do with a film like Sonny Boy? You sit back and let the madness ensue.