Nicolas Cage's 'Sonny' surprises with its emotion

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With the deeply affecting "Sonny," Nicolas Cage displays the same sensitivity, emotional resonance and daring in his feature directorial debut that has characterized his splendid work in front of the camera.

In bringing John Carlen's much-admired but long-languishing script to the screen, Cage has taken on a daunting challenge, requiring him to confront the potentially sordid and exploitative with emotion and empathy but also with clear-eyed clinical detachment. "Sonny" may be modest in scale and budget, but in its way it is an ambitious undertaking that by and large succeeds.

Early one bright morning in New Orleans in 1981, a young man, Sonny (James Franco), in an Army uniform strolls down vacant Bourbon Street, its bars, strip clubs and jazz joints nearly silent but with the debris of a long, rowdy night strewn about. At the end of the commercial strip, Sonny stops in front of a large, old white clapboard house. He has come home after completing his military service, and as most mothers would be, Jewel (Brenda Blethyn) is overjoyed to see him.

Jewel and Sonny, however, are far from an ordinary mother and son. Jewel is an aging former prostitute and now struggling madam, down to just one girl, Carol (Mena Suvari), resilient yet vulnerable, who in Jewel's estimation is "a hard worker, but she likes to give it away." Far from having protected Sonny from her profession, Jewel takes pride in having trained Sonny in her trade and turned him out at the tender age of 12. By the time Sonny enlisted in an attempt to get away and find himself, he was a local legend among a legion of wealthy middle-aged women who could afford his services.

Jewel is a flashy, tough, low-class dame, but she both adores Sonny and looks to him to be the moneymaker he once was. (She insists that Sonny is all she has to show for her life, but that she either owns or manages to pay the rent on her French Quarter residence makes it appear she is not without financial resources.)

Jewel is taken aback, to say the least, by Sonny's announcement that he has no intention of resuming a life of prostitution and intends to go off to a small Texas town, where he has been promised a job by an Army buddy (Scott Caan) in a bookstore owned by the buddy's father.

Jewel is skeptical of her son's making it in the "square" world, especially with such meager prospects, but her longtime friend Henry (Harry Dean Stanton), a professional thief and an avuncular figure in Sonny's life, encourages him to give it a try, warning him, however, that it will involve exchanging one set of problems and challenges for another.

In the seductively romantic antiquity of the French Quarter, it is easy to recall that the city's notorious red-light district, Storyville, stood (until 1949, though closed down in 1917) only a short walk from Jewel's place and that Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby," set in Storyville, was based on the factual reminiscences of a woman who had been turned out by her prostitute mother at the same age Sonny was.

Decadence hangs heavily in the atmosphere, underlining just how hard it is for a handsome, personable young man of Sonny's formidable sexual finesse to resist returning to the only thing he knows. That Sonny loves and pities his mother, and that he and Carol are drawn to each other add to Sonny's growing inner conflicts.

The way Sonny's destiny unfolds is not so predictable, and it is fully, often painfully, sometimes amusingly and always honestly illuminated. Cage, who years ago had wanted to play Sonny, appears briefly as a peroxided, coke-sniffing male madam long eager to persuade Sonny to include men among his clientele.

Cage unflinchingly depicts how unappealing Sonny's work truly is, yet he is as compassionate to the fleshy older women he services as he is to Sonny himself. (The fleshiest is played with amusing exuberance by Brenda Vaccaro, as a woman who deludes herself to think that she is the perfect partner for Sonny.)

Clearly, Cage has inspired trust from his actors, and "Sonny" takes Franco and Suvari to a new level of accomplishment. Stanton is indelible as usual. The ubiquitous and often excellent Blethyn, however, proves problematic. There's never the feeling that she has a handle on either a Southern accent or the character of Jewel, whom she tends to let lapse into caricature. In short, she is miscast.

The strength of "Sonny" is that it reveals the world of prostitution as part of, rather than apart from, the larger world. It is as uncompromising as it is nonjudgmental, and makes clear that a prostitute can be as lonely and needy as any of the clients. The day-to-day realities, especially economic, of Sonny and Jewel's lives could have been more fully detailed to good effect, and Cage might have also have risked setting off the tenderness of his storytelling with an edgier style. Even so, few films take the viewer by surprise with such emotional impact as "Sonny."

'Sonny'

MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, language, drug use.

Times guidelines: Considerable sex and nudity, emphatically adult themes and situations.

James Franco ... Sonny
Brenda Blethyn ... Jewel
Harry Dean Stanton ... Henry
Mena Suvari ... Carol
Brenda Vaccaro ... Meg

A Gold Circle Films & Samuel Goldwyn presentation. Director Nicolas Cage. Producers Cage, Norm Golightly, Paul Brooks. Executive producer Norm Waitt. Co-executive producer Glenn S. Gainor. Screenplay by John Carlen. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz. Costumes Shawn-Holly Cookson. Production designer Monroe Kelly. Set decorator Leonard Spears. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8400 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and the South Coast Village 3, Sunflower across from South Coast Plaza, (800) 555-TELL.

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