It seems fitting that a time capsule serves as one of the key elements setting the events of 'Searching For Sonny' into motion. The film itself feels like a hold over from the mid-to-late '90s, when every filmmaker with half a plot and a desire to tell jokes had managed to turn their screenplay into some sort of indie film. That being said, while there are some real gems, there are not enough indie films out there these days that feel indicative of a writer or a director with a distinct style, much less a flare for bizarre comedy. So on those terms, at least, 'Searching For Sonny' has a lot going for it.
As the first feature-length film to come from Andrew Disney (yes, he's related to that Disney family, but as he describes it, not so much that he can cut in line at Splash Mountain, or finance movies like 'Searching For Sonny' out of some bottomless trust fund), it hints at a boisterous young talent that may someday be born from the experience and time spent channeling what is clearly a lot of energy into a more structured project. But that's half the fun in watching the result of a first time filmmaker: they certainly don't know where the boundaries are, and with the promise of their vision being shown in theaters for the first time, the inclination is often to throw everything right up there.
What's remarkable about 'Searching For Sonny' is the effort is makes to be funny; the film is relentless in its pursuit of squeezing a joke out of every situation. As the film's writer and director, Disney is clearly aiming from the hip, letting jokes fly amidst ridiculous situations with little regard as to where or if he'll stick the landing – and somehow, that proves admirable. Perhaps if a filmmaker is going to make an absurdist comedy, it's best to do so with his or her first at bat. On one hand, regardless if people like it or not, it makes for a more auspicious debut, while on the other, there's a good chance all that unmitigated absurdity will have been worked out of said filmmaker's system by the time the next film rolls along.
This film's (not so) basic plot revolves around a group of down-on-their-luck, semi-estranged friends who gather at their high school's ten-year reunion to find they've been sucked into a noir-ish scheme that's oddly similar to a disastrous high school play written by the titular Sonny. Appropriately, things start off bleak – Elliot Knight (Jason Dohring, 'Veronica Mars') is a 28-year-old pizza delivery boy living a mostly secluded life in New York, and struggling as much with his inability to get his life going as he is trying to downplay the fact that that he nearly killed his best friend (Sonny) in a childish prank gone horribly awry.
Soon, Elliot is off to Texas, where the hapless Gary (Brian McElhaney) – a failed real estate agent trapped under his mother's domineering thumb who day dreams of sticking a BBQ fork in his neck – and Elliot's fraternal twin, the ostentatious and annoying Calvin (Nick Kocher), rejoin him in a journey that is as much about the search for the missing Sonny, as it is rekindling their lost connection. Added to the mix, is Elliot's high school sweetheart Eden Mercer (Minka Kelly, 'Friday Night Lights,' 'Parenthood') who dumped him for the high school's star quarterback, Zack Hayes, a decade earlier.
Following a seemingly random clue, Elliot and his fellow amateur sleuths set off to find a time capsule they'd buried ten years prior, and wind up stumbling upon Zack Hayes' dead body. From there, the laughs descend into a twisting plot that revolves around insurance fraud, half-remembered high school memories, a mustachioed man from the future and Calvin's undying hatred for Principal Faden (Michael Hogan, 'Battlestar Galactica'). Helping to make sense of the story (which bounces back and forth between ten years earlier and the present) is the narration by velvet-voiced raconteur Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon from 'The Wire'). While most of the time a voice over can be seen as a storytelling crutch, Disney manages to utilize Peters in such a way that actually enhances the comedy and serves to direct the viewers' attention toward the various tangents and asides better than any additional expositional dialogue from the characters would.
And so, what would normally have been a follow-the-clues style whodunit is filtered through the characters' reflection of choices that have led them to their current state. Those flashbacks and recollections set up the film's most prominent point – the way Elliot and Calvin relate to one another and eventually find some way to mend their fractured relationship. To that end, Kocher turns in the film's most exuberant performance and manages to provide the lion's share of the laughs, while his frequent collaborator, McElhaney, comes in a close second. Dohring and Kelly both serve to round out the cast nicely, offering a sweet balance to the film's increasing reliance on darker plot points and the jokes that arise from them.
Though the characters are roughly drawn out, and, at times, the film feels uncertain and uneven, it is more often than not a fast-paced, humorous mystery with a visual style that belies what little experience the director and his cinematographer actually have. In the end, Disney, like his characters is still a work in progress, but with a little beveling of the edges – in both his craftsmanship and the tone of his work – there's enough here to suggest the director's next effort will be a stronger one.
'Searching For Sonny' certainly won't appeal to those who have become accustomed to the highly polished work of established Hollywood directors, but based on the performance of Kocher alone, the film merits a look.
Though many of the shots arranged by Disney and his DP Jeffrey Waldron are reminiscent of similar indie fare, 'Searching For Sonny' is a visually appealing film that benefits greatly from the its use of the RED camera system. And while certain elements suggest the quality of the picture could have been greater than what is on display, any such complaints are likely due to the transfer process and not the filmmakers' technique.
Delivered on a 1080p MPEG-2 codec, the Blu-ray reproduces a strong picture with no noise or artifacts present, but the image occasionally skimps on fine detail and tends to loose even more features in low-lit scenes. Conversely, blacks are rendered nicely, and create good contrast in the picture. Colors are bright without appearing over-saturated, and tend to make the image appear to have greater depth than it might otherwise.
On the bright side, with RED becoming the choice of more and more young filmmakers, it's nice to see Disney has pared himself with a cinematographer who knows his way around the format, and has managed to craft some compelling imagery from a film that likely operated on a micro-budget – kudos to Waldron and Disney for their extra effort in making the film's visual style an enticing element to their storytelling technique.
While most Blu-ray fanatics have been spoiled with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks that accompany most disc releases, 'Searching For Sonny' has been given a fairly impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 track that is more than adequate to handle the audio needs of this particular film.
For the most part, the film is dialogue driven, and the Dolby Digital track presents characters' voices with very good clarity and even manages to drive some conversations through multiple channels – depending on where a particular character is situated and how the editing is handled. To that, the directionality of the audio comes through remarkably well, carrying sound elements from one speaker to the next seamlessly.
Beyond the dialogue, the film takes many of its cues through the musical score, which is primarily driven through the front channels, but occasionally elements will bleed into the surround speakers and immerse the viewer. Additionally, when present, sound effects like gunfire and car or plane engines register nicely with appropriate bass levels and imaging.
All in all, it's a decent sounding package for a film that doesn't really require anything more advanced.
'Searching For Sonny' isn't the kind of debut feature that's going to land Disney the 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' as his next directorial effort, but it likely will earn him enough clout to make another feature. With luck, whatever Disney has cooked up next will allow him to utilize what he's learned from completing this film and implement it in both his screenwriting and directorial choices. Despite some of the clumsier aspects on display here, there is a lot to like about 'Searching For Sonny;' namely, Kocher, McElhaney and Disney as a writer-director. For that alone, 'Searching For Sonny' gets an additional half-star rating on this review. The Blu-ray also offers a lot of insight into just how Disney approaches his work (he's professional without taking it all too seriously) and though it could have been a more refined presentation, its certainly one worth checking out.