1988’s Sonny Boy is one of the most unique films of the late ‘80s, an exploitation flick with a flourish of dark comedy that plays like a particularly rough melodrama. It’s genuinely shocking that the cult following for it is, to date, still tragically minimal. The directorial debut of Robert Martin Carroll, Sonny Boy has been described as a cross between Raising Arizona and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is about an apt description as you can get.
With that being said, it’s not really clear how to sum up Sonny Boy so that it makes sense. The elements that comprise the film are so bizarre that it’s hard to believe someone actually green-lit this movie. Paul L. Smith is a heavy set rural crime boss named Slue, who gives the term “loose cannon” a bad name. David Carradine plays Slue’s transvestite “wife” Pearl who seems to be the least crazy of the two. And Brad Dourif is Slue’s sleazy right hand man Weasel. When this group of degenerates living in Harmony, New Mexico, discover a baby inside a stolen car that Weasel picked up, they raise it as their own, except they keep “Sonny Boy” penned up in a corrugated metal cage and cut out his tongue to keep him quiet. When needed, Slue lets Sonny Boy (played as a teen by Michael Boston) out of his cage to kill those he deems in need of some course correction. Eventually Sonny Boy gets loose which causes all kinds of mayhem for both the townsfolk and Clue’s criminal enterprise.
As you have probably surmised, this film absolutely insane. It’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is greatly entertaining, and that can go a long way on a late night – which is precisely when this movie should be enjoyed. It’s just so wacky and off-kilter that it begs for the midnight hour.
The screenplay by Graeme Whifler (who would go on to write the awe-inspiringly insane Dr. Giggles, so he knows weird when he sees it) would have created a notably offbeat film no matter who was in the director’s chair, but under normal circumstances, it would have either been played as an over-the-top, Troma-esque comedy or an overly dark, grimy horror story. Carroll, however, goes a different route and pitches the film as a character study, with just a hint of dark humor. The actors are all fully committed to the roles, and as absurd or twisted the film becomes, Sonny Boy is so immersed in the world it creates that it never feels forced or unbelievable. Best of all is Boston, who elicits a beautiful pathos as the feral title character, despite the fact that he spends the film mute, clad only in filth and ragged pants.
Sonny Boy isn’t an easy film to watch, and it’s not hard to see why some viewers have hated it. If you’re not invested or at least curious about the world it creates where a young woman’s reaction to finding a half-naked mute man caged in an ice cream truck is to giggle, you’ll bow out pretty quickly.
Even if you’re not involved with the plot, the performances are certainly something to stick around for, with Dourif’s frantic Weasel changing hairstyles from a goatee to having dreads to a green Mohawk, and Smith’s sociopathic Slue in essentially a more serious version of his Crimewave character. In any case, Sonny Boy is a movie that anyone with more investigative cinematic tastes should sample, as it’s not one you’ll likely forget any time soon.
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