(About Sunny—formerly known as Think Of Me—becomes available thanks to Oscilloscope on VOD and various digital outlets on March 19, 2013. It world premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Visit the film’s official website to learn more. EDITOR’S NOTE: This film was produced by Hammer to Nail contributor Mike S. Ryan, but we all like it very much and aren’t going to punish him by not writing about it. NOTE 2: This review was first published on September 17, 2011, in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.)
Writer/director Bryan Wizemann has labored on the margins of independent film for several years, notably documenting his wife’s displeasure with his chosen career in the short Film Makes Us Happy, which did the rounds from Rooftop Films to Wholphin a few years back. It’s a simple but tough video of the couple arguing over Bryan’s conflict between making films and supporting his family, though the camera is most often trained on the edgy, tearful face of his wife Sabina. She takes to task the gatekeepers who dangle, then withdraw, hopeful leads in front of her husband, and voices doubt about his chances, and anger at his priorities. Thankfully Wizemann soldiered on, and he brings a similarly keen and sympathetic eye for women’s troubles to his feature Think Of Me.
The film stars Lauren Ambrose as a struggling single mother trying to get by in down-and-out Las Vegas. Wizemann himself was raised by his mom in Vegas, and his insider perspective strips the glamour from that desert city. Despite the lure of other states’ tax incentives, Wizemann insisted on Vegas, and he allows the city’s dingier quarters to take on the role of a lead character, informing, shaping, and pushing against the plot. The resulting film is a tour of crappy apartments, cheap motels, and endless back streets, an affront to the Entourage head trip that misrepresents Vegas as a glittering utopia of hedonism. Some have sniped that Wizemann’s film is poverty porn, a specious and superficial criticism (porn implies that this is a manipulative fantasy, which misses the mark). Ambrose’s Angela makes some questionable—and downright dodgy—choices as a mother, but it is impossible to separate her choices from her financial circumstances. Class is inextricably bound to the limited horizons of women like Angela, who, despite their efforts, can barely fend for themselves or their families. In Wizemann’s clear-eyed and unsentimental telling, Angela is neither victim nor saint. She’s just another woman on the verge.
Think Of Me begins slowly, collecting moments like loose change. But those moments consistently add insult to injury, frustrating Angela’s attempts to care for her daughter Sunny (played by newcomer Audrey Scott). Though worn thin, Angela still seems young, game for a quick fuck with men she picks up at clubs or a hit of meth after a long day, though these releases are for survival rather than pleasure. Meals are cadged with crumpled bills, a succession of burgers, pizza, and other fast food detritus. This world is far from the hysterical luxury of upper-class parenting, with its deluxe strollers, organic produce, and bilingual tutors (see TIFF confection Friends With Kids). Desperation and want inform Angela’s manic decisions, which unfortunately only serve to accelerate her descent into poverty. Her paltry call-center job doesn’t afford her childcare, car maintenance, or even new shoes for Sunny. There is genuine warmth and joy in the occasional happy moments Angela and Sunny are able to salvage from their days, but those moments can turn on a dime. Undercooked macaroni sends Angela into a tailspin, her hot tears proof that she is both aware and ashamed of her maternal lapses.
In the midst of all this a mild coworker of Angela’s begins to circle, played with creepy precision by Dylan Baker. His surprising intentions are to act as a kind of broker, offering Angela money to send Sunny to live with his childless sister in Toronto. Implicit in the offer is the charge that Angela is incapable of taking care of her daughter, especially with the nagging suspicion that Sunny suffers from a learning disability. Angela fights off the guilt as long as she can, but when she’s fired from her job and their apartment is robbed her vulnerability forces her to consider this unthinkable transaction.
Lauren Ambrose is great as the tough but brittle Angela, but I was equally impressed with Audrey Scott’s performance. She has remarkable command over her body, and uses it in a loose and communicative way, giving her performance a naturalism and quiet ferocity that’s startling. She sighs, clenches her teeth, and jerks her small frame around, embodying the pain and neglect Sunny is too young to articulate. Her sad, tired gaze is the perfect foil to Ambrose’s fast-blinking, wide-eyed Angela, whose panic rises slowly, like floodwaters drowning a trapped animal. Wizemann’s visuals compliment the talented cast, and the production design and Mark Schwartzbard’s camerawork show a thoughtful understanding of the story. The devil is often in the details: Angela’s ragged denim miniskirts and clomping boots, Sunny’s rainbow kneesocks, the dollar store birthday decorations. Theirs is a resolutely off-brand, bargain bin life.
The film’s politics are subtle, inferred in the small failures that force the humiliating downward spiral of the working poor. In her discussion of the film, critic Melissa Silverstein notes that “poverty is a women’s problem,” but I was also reminded of the Safdie Brothers’ Daddy Longlegs. Both of these films explore the stark, thorny love that can grow between children and their struggling parents, what poet Robert Hayden calls “love’s austere and lonely offices.” This is blood-borne love, the kind that binds and scars in equal measure. But by resisting judgment, Wizemann’s moving film raises interesting questions about the claims of parenthood, privilege, and the complicated ethics of love.
— Susanna Locascio