Sonny

[Synok]

Russia, 2009
Color, 96 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Larisa Sadilova
Screenplay: Larisa Sadilova
Cinematography: Dmitrii Mishin
Production Design: Azamat Turaev
Music: Rustam Akhadov
Editing: Anvar Charyev
Cast: Viktor Sukhorukov, Oleg Frolenkov, Evgeniia Simonova, Kseniia Surkova, Oleg Bokhan, Iurii Kiselev
Producer: Rustam Akhadov
Production: Studio “Arsi-fil'm,” with financial support from the RF Ministry of Culture

With Sonny, Larisa Sadilova continues to develop an emergent trend within her work: explorations of relationships characterized by the asymmetricality of power, whether that of employer and employee in Needing a Nanny (1999), or surveillor and surveilled in Nothing Personal (2007). Sonny exploits a new approach to such differentials in power through the genre of the inverted police procedural, in which the unfolding investigation, coverage, and prosecution of a scandalous crime is told from the viewpoint of individuals caught on the periphery of the crime, rather than that of those who perpetrate the crime or those who interrogate them. In a typical procedural, action is motivated by a corpse, moving toward the emergence of the singular truth behind the body’s circumstances from among many false leads. Sadilova, however, removes the focus the representatives of law, order, and the press; her camera instead follows the ripples and eddies provoked by encounters with these institutions within the community of Trubchevsk


These encounters clearly undermine established notions about relationships within the film. This is most centrally illustrated in the dissection of the father-son dynamic between Igor' (Viktor Sukhorukov) and the eponymous “synok,” Andrei (Oleg Frolenkov). Superficially, they both seem to be struggling with Andrei’s adolescence and the onset of a new phase of their lives. Andrei seeks alternatives to the home life dominated by his over-protective father, mostly through the time-tested teenage methods of sullen silence, loud music, flouting of curfews, and illicit—and therefore thrilling—rides in cars with girls. When Andrei becomes a suspect in a murder investigation, the supreme normalcy of their generational conflict comes into question.


Policemen, journalists, and lawyers all seek to discover the roots of the social maladaption of a murderer in Andrei’s personality and upbringing. Details that a casual observer would deem merely idiosyncratic become symptoms of a noxious and twisted home environment and the inheritance of psychopathy. Igor'’s choice to call his son “Andrei” rather than a more familiar diminutive becomes a sign of long-term alienation within the family; the alternative moniker “synok” implies undue affection and the attempted infantilization of a young adult. When Igor' hires a defense lawyer (Evgeniia Simonova), she queries Igor' about his family’s mental health history and that of his wife. While Igor' takes offense at this line of questioning and it ends, it plants the seed of doubt: could this explain the older man’s apparent isolation and his inability to connect with his son? Or perhaps the key to understanding their dysfunctional relationship lies in the complete absence of female figures in their family life since Igor'’s wife abandoned them. The institutional drive to pin down the source of Andrei’s inclination to murder brings all aspects of his life and relationships under the microscope. What in everyday circumstances would not be considered average, but would still fall within the range of normal behavior, becomes monstrous.


The investigation’s conclusion that Andrei’s actions fall much more comfortably in the category of “misdemeanor” than “felony” ought, by all rights, to dispel the doubts instilled by the constant questioning in the main body of the film. The viewer must, however, come to grips with the fact that doubts, once raised, leave traces on relationships; one was either unfailingly faithful, or absolutely faithless. The flashbacks that Sadilova interjects into the narrative illustrate the effects of these doubts on Andrei’s family and friends quite starkly, especially in the case of Andrei’s friend Gosha (Oleg Bokhan). When police investigators inquire whether Andrei had access to a weapon, Gosha flashes back to an episode where, not only had he and Andrei found a firearm, but Andrei had pointed it at him. Confronted with a particularly leading series of questions about the accident that left him wheelchair-bound, Gosha again flashes back to a scene in which Andrei’s responsibility for the injury is ambiguously presented, but clearly possible. Unable to maintain faith in his friend’s innocence, Gosha seeks out the firearm, hidden in the woods; even when it turns out to be untouched, exculpating his friend, he takes it, apparently fearing for the consequences if Andrei should continue to have access to it.


Gosha’s faithlessness illustrates the power of doubt and the capacity that the culture of law enforcement and sensationalist journalism have for eroding social trust. However, the alternative is Igor'’s unfailing and blind trust in his son, portrayed in such a way as always to seem the most pathetic of options. The use of visual framing—Igor' is often seen through doorways, the bars of a prison gate, even the outline of a piece of playground equipment—implies as much: the father is constrained to believe or not believe by some perverse psychological inability to believe something could fall outside of his narrow set of expectations. In this way he is much like the figures who disrupt relationships in the film, who are themselves led to expect certain outcomes based on the straitjackets of their institutional backgrounds.


Though the visual frames can be somewhat intrusive, framing unifies the film as a whole, occurring also at the narrative level. The opening scene leads up to the vehicular manslaughter of Andrei’s mentor in the ways of independence, Rita (Kseniia Surkova); the abstract concept of freedom is also unambiguously lost in the process. In the closing scene, the film returns to that moment of loss as Andrei recollects it, but a memory of freedom completes the narrative frame—while credits roll, Andrei and Rita traverse a path through an open field that complements the initial shots of the open road. That open spaces and the search for independence are associated is unquestionable—the connection is also reflected in evening youth gatherings by the riverside. But this imagery is also tied up with the equally meaningful structure of the frame, associated with mental cagedness, summoning questions about the film’s final message. Their pairing implies, perhaps, hope in the face of ossified attitudes and the instability of youthful commitments, without ever claiming to redeem the events and conclusions of the plot.


Sonny played at the 2009 Kinotavr film festival, garnered the editors’ choice award as well as best actor award for Sukhorukov at the 2009 Moscow Premiere film festival, and the prize for best scenario at the 2009 “Golden Phoenix” festival in Smolensk.

 

Larisa Sadilova (1963- ):
Coming to Moscow from the town of Briansk, a town that informs the settings of several of her films, Larisa Sadilova graduated from the State Institute for Filmmaking under the instruction of Sergei Gerasimov in 1982. Her directorial debut, Happy Birthday! (1988) was the cinematic event of the year in Russia; since then, she has continued to garner attention on the domestic and international film festival circuit. In addition to her work as scriptwriter and director, Sadilova has acted in films, including Gerasimov’s Lev Tolstoi (1984).

 

Filmography:
2009 Sonny
2007 Nothing Personal
2005 Needing a Nanny
2002 With Love, Lilly
1998 Happy Birthday!

-Elise Thorsen

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