Ryan Ward works hard in the bleakly beautiful indie film Son of the Sunshine, playing this weekend at Cinematheque. The 32-year-old Ward, who was born in Portage La Prairie and raised in Winnipeg, co-writes and makes a daring directorial debut.
He also plays Sonny, a young man living with Tourette Syndrome. We first see Sonny getting off the Toronto subway covered in blood, his involuntary obscenities having gotten him beat up. Understandably, the stigmatized, socially-isolated Sonny takes a chance to be cured through an experimental procedure, but he soon finds that his "normal" life comes at a cost.
Son of the Sunshine has an original feel to it, as the wonders and miracles of magic realism keep sneaking into low-budget kitchen-sink Canuck drama. Set on Toronto's mean downtown streets and scruffy outskirts, the story plumbs dark themes like addiction, disease, poverty, homelessness and dire family dysfunction. But it also manages moments of almost mystic light.
Not unexpected in a debut film, there are a few awkward patches where the writing is pushed too hard or a performance goes over the top. (Screaming is the default setting in a few too many scenes.) But there are also passages of slow, hushed emotional intensity. In Sonny's relationship with the equally troubled Arielle (Rebecca McMahon), Ward perfectly conveys the way two damaged young people can cling to each other in a volatile, all-consuming passion. Also nicely expressed are Sonny's bonds with his angry but loving sister Meryl (Shantelle Canzanese) and his weary junkie mother (JoAnn Nordstrom).
Ward's own performance is the film's central strength. He makes sure not to reduce Sonny to the sum of his tics, instead giving him a haunted, haunting complexity.
And speaking of performances, Ward will be taking part in a panel discussion after the Friday night screening, talking with local actors Sarah Constible (The Stone Angel, High Life), Ernesto Griffith (Billy, Locked Down) and Stephen Eric McIntyre (High Life, Small Town Murder Songs) about the world of the independent actor.
Also at Cinematheque this week is Beauty Day, a weirdly tragicomic doc about Ralph Zavadil, a lunatic cable-access star from St. Catharine's, Ontario. Back in the 1990s - before YouTube, before Jackass - Zavadil was videotaping don't-try-this-at-home stunts for an eager audience. He jumped off things, blew things up, lit things on fire, and hit things with sledgehammers. He shaved by lighting his face on fire and whitened his teeth with spray paint.
Director Jay Cheel grew up watching Zavadil's Cap'n Video show, and he's maybe too inclined to take Zavadil's self-mythologizing at face value. Still, as we watch the present-day Zavadil prepare to mark his show's 20th anniversary, there's a poignant gap between Cap'n Video's "just give 'er" talk and the downward pull of time and age.
Winnipeggers, who have their own history of crazy cable-access TV - for us it was Videon Cable 11 - might want to give Beauty Day a look.
Alison Gillmor, CBC reviewer