Wow. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie modified for 4:3. Especially one with such incompetent panning and scanning. Unfortunately, VHS is probably the only way you can see Sonny Boy, a weird little film that apparently never made the leap to disc or digital media. Pan and scan this terrible is like trying to watch a movie through a telescope, but someone else is holding it to your eye. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s worth watching it this way until someone tracks down the rights and gives the film a proper release.
Sonny Boy opens on a secluded motel where a young couple are being spied on by a good-for-nothing desert thug named Weasel (Brad Dourif), who looks pretty much how you’d expect a guy named Weasel to look. Weasel murders the couple and takes off in their convertible, which he tries to sell to the local crime boss, Slue (Paul Smith, who played Bluto in Popeye). Slue is a grown-up bully who lives in a junkyard of stolen merchandise with his transvestite wife, Pearl (David Carradine, who also provides the theme song). As Slue and Weasel are negotiating the price of the stolen convertible, Pearl notices there’s a baby boy in the backseat and she immediately adopts him as her own.
So what happens when a baby is raised by a trio of monsters? First, they give him “the gift of silence” by cutting out his tongue. Then, in a montage of Sonny Boy’s formative years, we see how Slue and Weasel physically torture Sonny, against Pearl’s wishes, in order to toughen him up for the real world. These games of abuse culminate in Sonny Boy’s rite of adulthood, in which Slue ties the boy to a stake and Weasel lights a ring of fire around him. You’ll see Pearl off to the side, desperately trying to put the fire out with a tiny bucket of water. She’s shaking her head as if to say, “Oh, boys will be boys.”
I know all this sounds horrific, but it’s kind of sweet—perhaps bitterly so—in the surreal context of the film. The film makes no excuses for the way its characters behave, but it’s clear this is the only way these people know how to raise a kid, a kid they clearly love and care about. You begin to wonder if the reason they lack a moral compass is the same reason Sonny Boy lacks one: perhaps they were raised like animals, too. Anyway, one day Sonny sees himself in the mirror for the first time, face covered with the blood of Slue’s enemy, which inspires the boy-in-a-man’s-body to begin the long, difficult process of deprogramming himself…
Or something like that.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with the film (such as an overly explanatory voiceover, a cheat of an ending, and a hamfisted message about tolerance, acceptance, yatta, yatta, yatta), but it’s clear the movie was a labor of love. There are plenty of creative shots, surprisingly great casting, and an unwillingness to make the film something it isn’t in order to satisfy more commercial audiences. According to the grapevine, the subject matter of Sonny Boy was so disturbing, theaters pulled it from showings within days of its release. I don’t buy that because the film simply isn’t that disturbing. I think the real reason it was pulled is couldn’t have been a crowd-pleaser in 1989, which seems to be the year moviegoers began demanding more of a film’s budget than the content itself.
Mere minutes into Sonny Boy, I was reminded of a type of film I haven’t thought about in a long time. Growing up in the late eighties and nineties, there was no shortage of small, “quiet” films on HBO and Cinemax, films I’d never heard of before they simply came on one day and unexpectedly hooked me. I honestly don’t know how to explain these types of movies, and I’m sure the TV programmers only acquired them for filler content, but they were kind of like the younger, unknown siblings to “slice of life” films like Something Wild. In other words, they were smaller versions of mainstream movies when movies had more in common with novels than video games.
Ultimately, that’s what’s most satisfying about Sonny Boy: its unexpected restraint. I probably would have liked it just as much if “the joke” was that you get to see the star of Kung Fu in a dress, but amazingly, it doesn’t go there. Sure, there are people who get thoroughly blown up by artillery shells, but if you’re looking for a raunchy exploitation film to show a drunk and rowdy crowd, Sonny Boy isn’t the one. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a watch on a hungover Sunday morning, though.