What is our connection to other people? What do we want that connection to be? What are the pleasures of these connections and what are the dangers? These are the questions central to Courtney Ware’s feature film debut, Sunny in the Dark. The film is a quiet, melancholic parable about loneliness and our desire for connection. It’s about a man named Jonah who is increasingly isolated from the world. When he moves into a new loft apartment he is unaware that he is decidedly not alone. A woman named Sunny is living in the crawl space above his apartment. And she’s watching.
Before we dig too deep here I’d like to take a quick step back in the interests of full disclosure and mention that I know Ms. Ware from her time at the University of North Texas. Our paths crossed when she was an undergraduate and I was a graduate student, both of us in the UNT’s excellent Media Arts department (although back then we called it Radio, Television, and Film). If memory serves me correctly I was her lab instructor in an intro to film production class. Like a few students I encountered during this time, there wasn’t much I could teach Courtney. She was an incredibly capable and confident student, traits that are visible in her work now. We haven’t really kept in touch beyond trading a few likes on Facebook over the years, but I do believe it’s important to be up front about these things, especially when it concerns something as subjective as a film review. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s jump back in.
The premise of the film is compelling and there are sequences in the film that are riveting. I especially found the sequences of Sunny exploring Jonah’s apartment to be quite good. There’s something illicit about it, even if Sunny herself never feels malevolent. Sunny, played wonderfully by Hannah Ward, is a bit of a mystery. Over the course of the film I was able to pick up little bits of character from her: she has a pet rat (or has befriended a rat?) named Socrates, she’s likely suffering from a developmental disorder, and she has some kind of trauma history. That’s really all we get. As she watches Jonah live his life she becomes very attached to him. Possibly obsessed? We’ll get back to that in a moment.
Jonah is played by Jay Huguley with a quiet, kind of desperate sincerity. This man is troubled by the recent breakup of his marriage which has driven him from seeking new connections in life. His actions and words are very measured. He also has a very developed, but perhaps deluded sense of self. At one point, soon after moving into his new loft, he begins reading The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography of Thomas Merton, a monk who sought isolation as a means of understanding the world. Jonah is definitely isolating himself, but it’s more of a crutch or a safety blanket than it is a means of leading him to understanding. He spends his time painting small action figures, reading books, cooking meals for himself, and shopping for records. He seems comfortable, but lonely in these sequences. When he’s forced to interact with others (his mother, a neighbor, his ex-wife), Jonah seems out of step and discomfited. The only time Jonah seems comfortable with other people is when he is at work. Jonah is a therapist. He works with couples and families, helping them deal with their communication issues. His advice to them is at times insightful, but also colored by his own penchant for isolation. In one moment he warns a client about the dangers of making changes.
This leads us to the central tension in the film. Sunny is the one who is truly isolated, Jonah only thinks he is. Sunny likely doesn’t have much choice but to live this way, Jonah’s isolation is self-inflicted. They’re two people desperate for meaningful connection and they happen to be living together. This is a tremendous set up, just aching to be mined and explored for meaning. So, of course, the big question is, does the film do something interesting with this? My answer would be mostly.
For me, the delight in this kind of contemplative drama is in seeing what ideas the film brings to me. How does it explore its central questions? How deep does it go? What does it say? The film certainly explores the dangers of making connections. Jonah tries a couple times to step outside of his comfort zone. He’s not exactly rewarded for that.
For Sunny, the reality of her situation means she can only make connections with Jonah in small ways that really only have meaning for her—which really means she’s not making connections at all, just playing at a fantasy she’s making in her mind. Sunny is forming a deep connection with Jonah, but can that connection be meaningful if the other person isn’t aware of it? Maybe?
For me a lot of how the film tries to deal with these questions came in the closing scenes, which of course I won’t give away here, other than to say some of the answers I got were satisfying, others weren’t, and the film left me with a couple of new questions that I found delightfully ambiguous in what they might mean for our characters.
To go back to the film overall, I have to say it’s wonderfully shot and edited. There’s some palpable tension and suspense in the film, both in the scenes of Sunny invading Jonah’s space, and also in some plot threads I haven’t mentioned here. The production design is also first rate, especially for a film of this scale. It looks great. It also has a solid supporting cast including Lee Meriwether (Catwoman!), Verity Branco, and Heather Bloom. This is a film that works on many levels and tries at asking some big questions. Whether it answers those questions to satisfaction is ultimately going to be decided by each viewer individually, which is to say the film does not provide any answers that are easy. As I said earlier, this is Courtney Ware’s first feature film. Can’t wait to see what she does next.
Sunny in the Dark had a very successful film festival run and is now available on VOD. You can find it at all the usual outlets including iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo on Demand, and Google Play.