Nicolas Cage makes an unusual but pleasantly haunting debut behind the camera with “Sonny,” the tale of a young man groomed as a gigolo by his Southern momma from age 12. Distinguished by affecting performances, commercial prospects seem modest but honorable in light of the semi-sordid storyline. However, anyone who gives “Sonny” a spin is unlikely to quickly forget it.
Pic made trade headlines prior to its Deauville world preem when Robert Dellinger filed suit against Cage and assorted production companies for failing to give him screen credit as co-writer. Dellinger claimed he and credited scripter John Carlen co-wrote a handful of screenplays when both were incarcerated in the ’70s, and “Sonny” borrows much from those texts.
Per production notes, Cage considered playing the lead himself in the mid-’80s and, later, never having forgotten the unusual material, dug up the script for his directing bow.
Besides “Midnight Cowboy” and “American Gigolo,” there aren’t many mainstream movies centered on straight male prostitutes. “Sonny” is a worthy, if indie-style, addition to the list, with James Franco (“James Dean”) making a lead as special as Jon Voight or Richard Gere in the aforementioned films.
Pic is set in New Orleans over the course of a few weeks in 1981. Fresh out of the Army, Sonny (Franco), who never knew his father and whose mother, Jewel (Brenda Blethyn), is a whore past her prime, returns to the house on Bourbon Street where Jewel lives with her cordial loser of a companion, Henry (Harry Dean Stanton).
Jewel made no provision for her retirement and Henry’s main source of income is petty theft. Jewel’s only cash is brought in by her lone “employee,” Carol (Mena Suvari), a fresh-faced call-girl she rescued from a hospital and put to work.
So Jewel is delighted Sonny is back, handsome as ever at age 26. But Sonny has no intention of returning to the gigolo biz, especially as an army buddy (Scott Caan) has promised him a job at a bookstore in Texas.
While encouraging Sonny to strive for the “square” life, Henry warns him that normal existence is also fraught with pitfalls, especially for someone whose sexual talents are considerable but whose social skills were channeled into a commercially expedient direction.
Indeed, the job promised by Sonny’s army pal doesn’t pan out, and a date with what Sonny believes to be a typical girl ends in (an impressively staged) crisis.
Sonny returns to New Orleans, and he and Carol begin working as a duo servicing bored couples. However, the couple Carol most yearns to form is a real one.
Movie is full of meaty scenes played to the hilt, the atmosphere a cousin to Tennessee Williams sans the florid dialogue. Set at the tail-end of an AIDS-free universe — with just a passing reference to a “new virus” in a men’s brothel — pic makes sex a forthright commodity, almost in the manner of a public service.
As Sonny’s mom, Blethyn is a whirlwind of broad emotion, while Franco makes the title character a paragon of boyish understatement, his occasional outbursts all the more effective. Suvari, as Carol, convinces as a pretty young thing who deserves better but can’t find a way to reach the feelings that were mostly bred out of Sonny by formative years devoted to the skilled lies of the hustler’s trade.
Stanton is a perfect blend of inherent dignity and pathos. Meanwhile, Cage, almost unrecognizable, casts himself as Acid Yellow, a coke-addled queen complete with frilly yellow suit (which belonged to Liberace and Cage bought at an auction years ago) and walking stick.
A selection of middle-aged thesps are marvelous as women of stature with basic needs they pay Sonny to fill. These include Brenda Vacarro, who enjoyed the ministrations of Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy,” here portraying an appreciative and pragmatic matron.
Cage’s approach to the material is unfailingly adult and non-judgmental. Sex scenes are convincing but never crass, with some older breasts and Franco’s handsome derriere on show.
Lensing makes good use of locations and imparts a refreshingly polished look to settings whose seediness others may have been tempted to underline. Scoring is mostly thoughtful, as is source music from Bach to disco.