directed by Soleil Moon Frye
by Walter Chaw At times deeply affecting, erstwhile "Punky Brewster" Soleil Moon Frye's second film is a personal memoir of a two-week trip taken by Soleil and her father, actor Virgil Frye, across the physical landmarks of the latter's life, with Virgil's Alzheimer's-afflicted mind disintegrating in chunks of recollection as the film progresses. At its best, Sonny Boy captures the troubled emptiness of the rural United States' back roads, expanding its personal story into an almost metaphysical statement about being lost in America; as it happens, Virgil even worked on the production of friend and confidante Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, which shares curious parallels with Sonny Boy in its road trip and unmasking. (Aiding its extra-textual fascination, the picture fits comfortably in 2004's abundance of films dealing with memory.) But moments that begin as revelatory at times become uncomfortably intimate. It's not that we're too close, it's that looking at someone else's photograph album--flipping through a stranger's diary--is at once a violation and an example of trying to decode signs without a key to the signifier. We feel sympathy because we're human and we feel moved for the same reason, but with a project this personal, there is almost always the moment where you realize, during a passage too extended or a reference too opaque, that the scissors were put away prematurely. Soleil at least demonstrates a supple eye and a canny use of images, an ability to blend different film stocks to good effect, and a knack for soundmixing, while the farewell at Virgil's supervised care facility lands with the weight of an Emily Dickinson poem--and all the cruel disassociative irony of one, too. Originally published: October 20, 2004.