A hunky Surinamese swimming fanatic fathers a child with a married Dutchwoman 17 years his senior in “Sonny Boy,” a literal, heavily articulated adaptation of a local nonfiction bestseller. Startling true story is set against the backdrop of the twilight of Dutch colonialism and the rise of Nazism but is, at its heart, a conventional historical romance of the Romeo-and-Juliet variety. First adult drama from kidpic veteran Maria Peters spent three weeks atop the local B.O. before being dethroned by “The King’s Speech,” and should appeal to Euro satcasters and fests not afraid of sleek, middlebrow fare.
Though broad comedies and high-quality children’s films remain the big local moneymakers, Dutch production companies are increasingly churning out grownup-oriented commercial dramas. Interestingly, the helmers of many of these projects don’t come from the local arthouse scene, but rather have graduated from successful children’s titles.
The work of Ben Sombogaart (Oscar-nommed “Twin Sisters,” “Bride Flight”) and now Maria Peters (whose earlier movies include “Little Crumb” and “Peter Bell”) exemplify this trend, and the storytelling-for-kids background of both has clearly left its mark; the majority of mainstream Dutch dramas produced today are not only irony-free but often also devoid of narrative or thematic complexity.
This is certainly the case with Peters’ film, which, despite reuniting two of the continent’s biggest recent nightmares, colonialism and Nazism, plays like a straightforward tale of the two star-cross’d lovers who would eventually produce the titular Sonny Boy, a cute brown boy with blue eyes (Daniel van Wijk, directed in a one-note manner). The child is the perfect emblem of their union, but not much else.
After a short prologue set in Suriname, pic proper jumps to the summer of 1928, when young local student Waldemar (newcomer Sergio Hasselbaink, going places) is sent to the Netherlands to study. He rents a room in the home of Rika (thesp-singer Ricky Koole, strong), a fierce woman who has just left her strictly religious yet two-timing husband, Willem (Marcel Hensema). But this is hardly the last transgression of the distaff rebel, as Waldemar and Rika soon fall in love, much to the initial shock of Willem and their four other kids.
The period love story between a young black man and a not-officially-divorced older white mother of five would be more than enough drama for a Dutch variation on a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. But history gets in the way of a happy ending, as Waldemar and Rika become owners of a boarding house in the 1930s and will use the many empty bedrooms, caused by the Nazi occupation, to hide Jews and a Dutch SS deserter.
It’s all more than Peters and co-screenwriter Pieter van de Waterbeemd can handle, as the story’s only fictional character, a cliched Jewish cabaret owner (Frits Lambrechts) shows, repping the pic’s tendency to favor the instantly readable over anything subtler. Such an approach makes it nearly impossible for a film about the love between two outcasts to say anything new or interesting about the casual racism, ageism and misogyny of prewar Europe, or of the effects and dangers of colonialism or life under the Nazi occupation.
Pic’s comfortable $8.2 million budget is all up onscreen, especially in the strong production and costume design, though the major historical events that dominate the last stretch force Peters to come up with a Michael Bay-sized setpiece for which she has neither the CGI budget nor the directorial savvy. Henny Vrienten’s score lends unobtrusive support, and dancing is cleverly used throughout as visual shorthand for happiness.