"Sonny Boy" (selected theaters) sounds like a story from a supermarket tabloid: a petty crook and his transvestite lover raise a kidnaped baby boy as an animal, caged, brutalized and trained to be a thief and killer. Yet this obscure little movie, surfacing without advance notice after two years on the shelf, proves darkly amusing and surprisingly touching, thanks to the imagination of writer Graeme Whifler and the sensitivity and judgment of director Robert Martin Carroll.
A goofy--what else?--Brad Dourif steals a Lincoln Continental convertible and presents it to his big, beefy boss, Paul L. Smith, a part-time Surrealist painter who lives in a desert compound littered with stolen goods. Dourif, however, has overlooked the infant in the back seat. Smith figures that the kid will bring 10 grand on the black market, but his lover, David Carradine, a hairy-chested, cigar-smoking transvestite, won't hear of it.
The story gets under way with Sonny Boy (Michael Griffin), who has had his tongue cut out to render him mute, at 17. He has by now developed feelings and yearnings that put him at desperate odds with what Smith intends for him. The film indulges in some risky religious symbolism, equating Sonny Boy's suffering with that of Jesus on the cross, and threatening to go sentimental with an angelic blond who shows love for the tortured youth. However, the filmmakers wisely opt for a decidedly tentative ending, hitting precisely the right note.
What makes "Sonny Boy" special instead of merely morbid is that Smith and Carradine are steadfastly devoted to each other and that, although they are world-class abusive parents, they actually care for Sonny Boy after their own fashion. The film emerges as a parable about the evil that may surface in loving people--and also how hypocritically indifferent society can be to child abuse. It's this human dimension that makes "Sonny Boy" so unsettling, yet engaging.
Smith and Carradine resist camp, playing the crazy couple as perfectly sane to themselves. Griffin, in a singularly challenging debut, is quite credible as the unfortunate "wild child." Dourif's zaniness adds welcome humor, and Conrad Janis, as an alcoholic physician, lends a crucial note of sanity amid the grotesqueries. "Sonny Boy" (rated an appropriate R) just might end up a cult film.