Independent Canadian filmmaking might rightfully be compared to the myth of Sisyphus. In a system that’s unwelcoming to newcomers and fresh voices, young filmmakers are left to fund a production with little more than sheer grit and then endlessly push a boulder across lonely prairies from film festival to film festival, hoping to garner enough kudos along the way to attract a wider audience. This state of affairs might partially explain why Ryan Ward, director, lead actor, and co-writer of Son of the Sunshine, wasn’t really planning on attending the 32nd Annual Genie Awards press conference during which nominees were announced.
Fortunately, a friend in the organization sent Ryan a heads up with a “strong recommendation” that he attend the press conference. And lo and behold, Ward and his co-writer Matthew Heiti find themselves on the short list for Best Original Screenplay. For Ward, the Genie nod, while definitely an honour, is just the last in a series of unlikely goals achieved by his first feature film. “I was sitting in a restaurant with my producer (Paul Fler) and we were kind of laughing about all of these big, unlikely goals we had. Theatrical release: impossible. Soundtrack with all these big names: impossible,” says Ward. “All these big, ridiculous goals are actually happening. The Genie nomination kind of keeps the movie alive and hopefully gets it seen by more people.”
And Son of the Sunshine might be an unlikely hero to claw its way to the top of the Canadian filmmaking heap, not because of a lack of quality or thoughtfulness (the film has those things in spades), but because of its dark edges. The film presents protagonist Sonny Johnns, a young man struggling with a debilitating form of Tourette’s syndrome and, by way of an experimental cure, his own identity. Ward’s and Heiti’s script addresses abuse, addiction, isolation, simmering anger, and the toxic burden of generational secrets. Yet, for all of its roiling frustration, Son of the Sunshine proffers a little bright centre of hope to illuminate its darkest corners and ultimately resolves in a kind of redemption for Sonny.
The fact that Son of the Sunshine is nominated specifically for a writing award might almost feel ironic at first blush. The movie is a study in tensions (Sonny’s tension with himself, his family, his past, and his future), but so much of these tensions are created with silence. Sonny’s isolation and inability to communicate is reflected back at the audience through long pauses and awkward silences. Heiti acknowledges that silence is wielded a bit like a weapon in the movie: “We’re coming from a theatrical background and playwrights are fascinated with words, but Sonny’s struggle is one of silence. People are generally uncomfortable with silence because everything is noisy, but the most powerful moments are the unsaid ones.”
The character of Sonny suffers from an extreme form of Tourette’s and his involuntary outbursts of profanity and physical tics are a perfect actualization of isolation and frustration. Ward notes that his personal experience of working in the arts informed the character of Sonny and the tenor of the movie. “Our artistic scene is fighting to be born and some of my impetus comes from being frustrated and angry,” says Ward. “I was writing this story with a character loosely based on me, then I saw a man shouting on the subway in Toronto””he’s kind of famous around town””and it just clicked. It was the perfect metaphor for an angry young man and how he fits in the world.”
Much has been made of a strain of “magical realism” running through Son of the Sunshine , but this is a bit of a stretch. While the movie does have a current of the supernatural running through it, this aspect is not so much a genre-marker as it is yet another tension to be resolved, come unraveled, and be resolved again. There’s no ghost story here, but there is a vein of lyrical mystery that informs Sonny’s struggle and redemption. “For me, it was more about how you can weave the weird or the eerie into a seemingly normal story,” says Heiti. “And ultimately, it’s about how something that seems negative can really be positive.”
As much as transforming the negative into the positive lies at the heart of Son of the Sunshine , it also lies at the heart of the movie’s life in a tough market. Aside from the Genie nomination, the film has garnered glowing reviews from the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many other publications (all of which you can find on the film’s media page), as well as a fistful of festival awards. But each of those achievements comes at the price of a lot of determination, and Son of the Sunshine has yet to secure a Canadian distributor. Ward expresses some amazement at this state of affairs. But though he has been pushing his Sisyphean boulder uphill since the movie’s release, he, like Sonny, finds a bright spot of hope. “The system isn’t quite working yet. We need to find ways to make new voices heard,” says Ward. “It’s an honour to be nominated for a Genie, and I hope it can get the movie out there. If we reach more people, that’s the best possible outcome.”
There’s a bright spot for Toronto Film Scene readers, too. Son of the Sunshine will be screening at the Carleton Cinema on February 22 as part of Raindance Toronto’s Indie Nite. You can join Ryan Ward (plus surprise cast and crew) for a drink at 7:00 pm in the Carlton Cinema Lounge and then catch an 8:00 pm screening of the movie.