Barely employed, barely housed, driving an inefficient car that barely starts, and attempting to raise an eight-year-old daughter with a learning disability solo, Angela (Lauren Ambrose, who is also the film’s co-producer) is a character constantly on the verge of a major tragedy. From About Sunny’s very first scene, we sense that writer/director Bryan Wizeman’s feature-length debut will only end in tears, being the portrait of the general hopelessness of the working poor that it is. However, Angela is presented to us as a character neither overly virtuous nor particularly vicious, and the real tragedy of her life stems not so much from a personal or moral failing, but from an unfortunate circumstance so far beyond her control that she fails to realize its impact on her life almost entirely.
Spending the majority of her daytime hours working in a nondescript office building doing telephone customer service for a pittance while her daughter Sunny’s at school, Angela is essentially stuck in low-wage, low-responsibility work that doesn’t allow for much advancement. And seeing as all of her time outside of work is devoted to her daughter, there isn’t much opportunity for her to find meaningful work elsewhere. The world this somewhat oblivious and self-destructive single mom lives in offers little solace outside casual recreational drug use and the possibility of office romance. Wizeman’s Las Vegas appears as a crushingly depressing metropolis, bereft of all color save the tacky, oppressive, and ever-present neon lights. The washed out scenes of Angela and Sunny walking from their busted old car past cracked, weed-filled parking lots to get to strip-malls to buy cheap shoes and happy meals do not beckon us to look upon their lives and wince, but to honestly come to terms with the fact that, for these two people as well as millions of others around us (or ourselves) this is the norm.
Stretched so thin financially that she’s always one uninformed decision away from abject ruin, homelessness, and the loss of her daughter, Angela’s paltry life is compelling mainly because it’s immensely fascinating to watch someone so easily pitied treated with the amount of innate dignity she is by Wizeman and his team. Whether it’s jeopardizing what little savings she has left to try and get in on the ground floor of some shady “investment opportunity” alluded to by her smarmy boss, or taking up a creepy co-worker’s offer of free studio portraits of her and her daughter, Angela’s options aren’t all that good to begin with. But she’s still allowed those options, and the consequences of the choices she makes when faced with them. Therein lies the basis for the tragic implications of the film, and subsequently the possibility of her redemption in the eyes of her long-suffering daughter.
Ambrose’s performance in this film is something of a revelation. Those familiar with her work in Alan Ball’s HBO series Six Feet Under will remember her mostly for the quickly tiresome crying jags that became a hallmark of her character pretty early on in the show. About as far removed from the melodrama of those early performances as possible, Ms. Ambrose’s work in About Sunny is a slowly building and intensely sustained portrayal of a woman on the edge, not exactly sure of herself but not merely a receptacle for pity, either. Angela is not particularly bright, generous, or loving, but faced with the morality of her situation, Ambrose plays this character with a grace and weight that’s worthy of note. The dizzying combination of hurt, self-loathing, despair, and anger that exist beneath the surface of her generally calm appearance are belied only when Ambrose shrewdly allows them to be. Audrey Scott, in a first time film appearance as Sunny, is uncannily subdued in her performance, perfectly capturing the passive, embarrassed, and confused nature of her character.
With this film, Wizeman grasps intuitively that the impact of Angela’s increasingly pathetic acts of desperation is directly related to how understatedly and naturalistically he can manage to present them. The inevitable tragedy of About Sunny is in no way less compelling for its inevitability, and Wizeman and his crew deserve no small amount of praise for managing the level of intensity and integrity they did from start to finish. This is a film capable of empathizing with its pitiable subjects without demanding that we pity them, offering us an inspiring and honest treatment of troubled characters and the unresolved problems that burden them.