Directed by: Andrew Disney
Written by: Andrew Disney
Featuring: Jason Dohring, Minka Kelly, Masi Oka, Nick Kocher, Brian McElhaney, Michael Kagan, Michael Hogan, Clarke Peters
Been to your high school reunion lately? I haven't. I was there for my fifth but, for the tenth and the fifteenth, I politely declined. It wasn't that I intensely disliked anyone from that period of my life (anymore…) or was worried about my status. I just decided that I didn't have any unfinished business, and if I did, well, I just hate the parking situation in that area, okay?
Elliot Knight (Jason Dohring, Moonlight and Veronica Mars), the protagonist of writer/director Andrew Disney's feature-length debut, Searching For Sonny, has plenty of unfinished business. When he gets a postcard about his tenth reunion, seemingly containing a message from his former high school pal Sonny Bosco (Masi Oka, Heroes and Hawaii Five-0), he decides to head home, leading to quite an adventure.
This will take a while to explain, and I'm afraid I'm not as skilled or charming a narrator as the film's own, Clarke Peters (Treme). In his sophomore year, Elliot broke up with Eden Mercer (Minka Kelly, Friday Night Lights and The Roommate) and never quite got over losing the woman he considered his one true love. In their senior year, Sonny wrote a detective story for the school theater festival and cast himself and Eden as the leads. Elliot, Sonny's understudy, spiked Sonny's drink with ipecac so he could steal the lead role and kiss Eden on stage. Well, that didn't go quite as planned: Sonny had an allergic reaction to the ipecac and nearly died, and a screw-up by the tech guy Gary Noble (Brian McElhaney) ruined the play before Elliot could plant his stolen kiss.
Elliot hasn't spoken to Sonny since then, but since his life in New York City is going nowhere fast, Elliot decides a trip home to beg for Sonny's forgiveness may be what he needs to get back on track. While at the reunion, he runs into Gary, now a married and miserable realtor; Eden, who's now married to the guy she left Elliot for; and, last and certainly least, his idiot fake pot dealer/coffee barista fraternal twin brother Calvin (Nick Kocher), who never graduated, but wanted to pick a fight with his old nemesis, Principal Faden (Michael Hogan, seizing on a rare, and welcome, chance to exercise his comedic skills).
With some help from Eden, Gary, Elliot and Calvin decipher the strange message from Sonny, which seems to point to Sonny wanting them to dig up an old time capsule they buried years ago. As they're fighting over who gets to dig it up, a car speeds by dropping off the body of Eden's husband, Zack, with a fresh bullet in his head. Complications ensue regarding the discovery, resulting in Gary getting his fingerprints on the murder weapon. Elliot and Calvin both realize that Sonny's old play, The Heated Moment, began in an extremely similar fashion. The three come to the conclusion that Sonny's in trouble, Zack's murder may be connected, and the only way they can find Sonny is by following the events of The Heated Moment exactly. Now, if only any of the guys could remember what actually happened in it…
Yikes, three paragraphs of backstory, and I've only hit the thirty-minute mark of the film. What follows is a series of madcap adventures as Elliot, Gary and Calvin try (and fail spectacularly) to locate Sonny using the play as a highly dubious roadmap. Disney (oy, what a last name!) shows a decent hand as a director for his first film — it's shot well, with skilled comic timing, and the cinematography by Jeffrey Waldron is fantastic. The film was an early success story on Kickstarter; it was successfully funded back in July 2010. It wasn't a big amount, only $10,000, and I'm not aware of how much the film cost, but Waldron and Disney certainly put in the effort to make a small indie film look like a big-budget effort. If you happened to contribute to this movie, I'd definitely say the money's on the screen.
If only what was on the screen worked a little better than it does. Searching For Sonny sets its tone early on, as a depressed Elliot has a nervous breakdown while watching an autistic man become "a national hero" by bowling a perfect game on TV. Despite showing how incredibly pathetic Elliot is, Dohring is skilled enough to make the guy sympathetic and likable even though he's a real tool. The film keeps up this manic level for the first third or so, as the incredibly complicated plot of The Heated Moment, combined with Calvin's wild theories about who's really behind it all and how Faden must, MUST be involved somehow.
The trouble starts when it becomes clear to the viewer what may actually be going on isn't quite what the trio believes it to be, and it's fairly obvious what that is as well, so it has the effect of making the characters look like complete idiots. That's definitely Disney's intention, I think — Peters' delightfully dignified, droll narration (which sounds about as far from Lamont Deveraux as you can imagine) belies the goofiness on screen, as if he's too distinguished a chorus for the proceedings. But there's a fine line between laughing at and laughing with, and about halfway through, Searching For Sonny throws up on said line. The pacing is all off; while the film is about 95 minutes, it feels about 30 minutes longer than that, putting the characters into more and more contrived situations that get less and less funny. The plot really depends on the characters remembering the events of the past ten years in the exact way they do, and while Disney works hard to have this make sense, it still seems like mind-reading was heavily involved.
Part of the problem can be attributed to Kocher and McElhaney, better known as the Internet sketch comedy duo Britanick. This is the first film for both of them, and they seem to be playing Calvin and Gary not as actual people but as broad sketch characters, complete with over-the-top facial characteristics (obnoxious sideburns for Calvin, a goofy porn 'stache for Gary). While Kocher's enthusiasm can be appealing, Calvin is such a loudmouthed, self-absorbed, irredeemable jerk that I was imagining creative ways to murder him, and Gary is too pathetic to bear watching. (His character arc concludes with him punching an old man in the face. Yay?) They stand in sharp contrast to a veteran actor like Dohring, who never lets go of showing at least a few shreds of dignity and decency inside Elliot.
Masi Oka, as the titular character, is shown in shadow for most of the film, but when he finally makes a full appearance, he's a breath of fresh air and does a pretty good job of commenting on the ludicrousness of our heroes' behavior, even if it feels like lampshading in the extreme. Also, his Spock is hilarious. Minka Kelly is…Minka Kelly. She fills "the Girl" role as adequately as can be expected, but she gets a good scene near the end of the film that gives her character slightly more depth than the femme fatale role she's been playing up till then. I would say this is at least better than her performances in The Roommate and the recent Charlie's Angels TV series, but that's not exactly a high bar to hurdle.
The bottom line with Searching For Sonny is that, despite a high energy level and a promising opening, it doesn't really offer a new spin on the well-worn tropes we find time and again with movies like this: Living in the past doesn't work; even though they may seem unbearable at times, your friends are really true blue; don't go trying to recreate the magic of your high school years; sometimes the one that gets way should stay gone, or as Sonny himself puts it, "bros before hos!" Also, women are backstabbing shrews. I don't think Disney actually intended that last one, but there are only three prominent female characters in this movie and they all turn out to be terrible people. Of course, our heroes are flawed too, but at least they get happy endings.
There are some things to like in Searching For Sonny — a winning performance from Dohring helps carry a lot of it — and there are some genuinely funny moments (mostly involving the over-the-top high school flashbacks), but it's too scattershot and runs out of gas far too quickly. Disney shows promise, though, and with a stronger script next time, who knows?