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About Sunny
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by Jay Seaver

"Thinks things through even when its protagonist doesn't."
5 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: Lauren Ambrose has been building a solid body of work since her teens, mostly as part of quality ensembles. Here she's got a lead role, and while it's not likely to be the one that makes her a household name - the movie's too small and the character's not an obvious heroine - it certainly doesn't bring her average down. And though she's in every scene, she's far from alone in delivering the goods here.

She plays Angela, a single mother in the less flashy part of Las Vegas whose call-center job just barely makes ends meet. Her daughter Sunny (Audrey Scott) is just about to turn eight and is falling behind the other students in her class with a possible reading disability. At work, she commiserates with Max (Dylan Baker), the guy in the next cube, and learns of an investment opportunity from her boss (David Conrad). It's not the kind that sets one up for life but it would give her a bit of a cushion. Of course, she's not the type for whom this sort of thing goes smoothly.

Yes, Angela is more than a bit of a screw-up, but she's a walking disaster as the movie begins rather than a crashing one, and not completely unsympathetic. We're not given much of a sense of what her circumstances were like when Sunny was born, but somehow she's managed to get this far without everything falling apart. Writer Bryan Wizemann presents her as someone who has made grudging, minimal concessions to being a responsible adult and parent - she knows she has to have a job, but also blows it off very easily when she doesn't feel like working. She's dressed like someone who can afford to be a lot more carefree and provocative, for that matter.

Considering all that, Ambrose could have played Angela as just a girl with serious arrested development, and while that's a lot of her performance, she seldom comes across as childish or comically immature. Instead, she makes Angela someone who is impulsive in a desperate way; she derives no joy or bliss from living in the moment but doesn't have a particularly strong grasp on the future as a concept. She also does a great job of showing how pressure and basic exhaustion wear on Angela as the movie goes on just by how quick she is to snap at another character or how she looks around when she has to make a decision; she doesn't need exaggerated make-up or disheveled hair as an overt signal of her fatigue. And it's not a completely negative portrayal; the movie wouldn't work if we couldn't see that there is a real understanding of her responsibilities that balances Angela's selfishness, or that she really loved her daughter.

Audrey Scott is just right in the scenes she plays opposite Ambrose. Instead of having Scott do spunky or bratty or wise, there's something almost alien about Sunny as seen through Angela's eyes - Sunny's not communicative or overtly unhappy, but she wants things and isn't really able to handle things getting worse. Sunny and Angela don't really understand each other but also clearly can't imagine the world without one another, and there's real chemistry between Ambrose and Scott, whether warming or volatile. There's also a fine performance by Dylan Baker, who gives even Max's most friendly moments a cynical edge.

That all serves Wizemann's story, which is really quite well-told. The plot arises very organically from a couple early comments from Max, and Wizemann deliberately avoids spelling anything out, and doing that while maintaining Angela's point of view lets the audience maintain the impression that either she's getting swept up in something or working some pretty strong denial and/or rationalization. Some of the foreshadowing is elegant despite being obvious, and he's able to work one pivotal event so that afterward I don't know whether it's an example of Angela's suspect judgment or someone moving the story along but think it works either way. A large chunk of the movie's second half takes place in Angela's car, which both serves as her reflection and emphasizes just how rootless and lacking resources she feels.

Wizemann's story is the sort of small and bleak one that can afford to be because it's tight and has something potentially positive at its center. That's buried deep, though, maybe too deep to be excavated.

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originally posted: 05/02/12 14:40:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.

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