When a teenage boy is implicated in a murder, his overprotective father pulls out all the stops to clear his name in the Russian drama “Sonny.” Despite the film’s strong emphasis on complex character relationships, its flat, uninspired shooting style makes it easy to overlook, and confirms that writer-helmer Larissa Sadilova (“Nothing Personal”) is stronger at screenwriting than directing. Were this script in French and in the hands of, say, Claude Chabrol, something terrific and properly commercial might have resulted; as is, “Sonny” will remained orphaned on the fest circuit and reap, at best, only niche biz domestically.
Set in the mid-sized Russian town of Trubchevska (where the film was also shot), the plot revolves around the sub-nuclear family of museum docent Igor Smirnov (character actor Viktor Sukhorukov, a regular in Alexei Balabanov’s pics) and his 16-year-old son Andrei (Oleg Frolenkov). Left by his wife years ago to bring up his son alone, fussy worrier Igor smothers Andrei with unwanted attention.
When lovely teenage hitchhiker Rita (Ksenia Surkova) drifts through town, Andrei is tempted to run away with her. On the day they take off, he and Rita are spotted driving an expensive SUV owned by a wealthy local businessman, whose corpse has just been found. A substantial pile of cash is also missing.
The police immediately finger Andrei as the murderer, and before long, local reporters are fanning the flames of suspicion. Even Andrei’s best friend Gosha (Oleg Bokhan), a paraplegic, has his doubts about Andrei’s innocence. Only Igor steadfastly insists his son is no killer.
Alternating action with flashbacks, the film gradually reveals what actually happened and more, but the murder mystery and a mild indictment of tabloid-press mentality are much less the point here than the characters’ interpersonal relationships. There’s more going on than meets the eye at first, not just between Andrei and Igor but also between Andrei and Gosha. Such subtlety is a familiar tool in Sadilova’s arsenal, as is her ability to draw fine perfs from her thesps. Sukhorukov’s work is particularly sterling throughout, although the non-pros rounding out the cast are also impressive.
It’s a shame, then, that the drab lensing (by Dmitri Mishin) and clunky editing (Anton Chuviev ) make the pic look like an ordinary, straight-to-cable procedural. Also, someone on the production team should have been advised that filming characters from just beyond doorways or through barred gates over and over again to suggest psychological imprisonment was a trite device the first time, let alone the sixth or seventh.