I watched “Standing Up for Sunny” as part of the Sydney Film Festival, and it was introduced by director Steve Vidler with a resounding gratitude for all the people who had donated money and made the film possible and there was an air of wonderment about him that the film had happened at all. So when the film began, I was prepared to be underwhelmed but impressed by the fact that those involved had pulled something together without the resources of a big production company.
I was very wrong. This was a unexpected delight, and within 3 minutes I had abandoned my ill founded skepticism and let what is admittedly a simple, fairy tale-esque but ultimately heartwarming and consistently funny story wash over me.
The story itself is a little far-fetched and idealistic, but it’s one of those things where you have to suspend your disbelief for a little while and roll with it. Travis (RJ Mitte), is a young man with cerebral palsy working as a groundsman for a Sydney university. Travis is bitter and resentful of the world, and one day while visiting a local bar, speaks up when a drunk bar patron heckles bright eyed Sunny (Pip Northeast) during her stand up set. In a scene inspired very much by the famous insults scene from Cyrano de Bergerac, or by extension Steve Martin in 1987’s Roxanne, Travis sasses the drunk heckler for his weak insults and comes up with his own, better ones for a person with cerebral palsy and the pub loves him for it. The manager of the bar Mikey, who is also Sunny’s boyfriend (Sam Reid), asks Travis to train Sunny in how to handle hecklers, and a romance slowly but surely blossoms. Sunny herself has her own dark past, complete with sexual abuse from her childhood neighbour and an ongoing struggle with bulimia. Of course Sunny and Travis end up together, with more or less the same beats as a typical rom com; things go well for a while until a misunderstanding breaks them up and then someone professes their love to a crowded room.
The plot or the themes aren’t particularly groundbreaking or new; it’s the performances that make it work. Travis is a flawed character, and Mitte is brutally raw and human in his portrayal. It would have been very easy to paint Travis as one dimensional and victimised, with his disability his only distinguishing character trait. Instead he is complex and imperfect, selfish yet scared and vulnerable; this is a love story about two people and the adversity that life has thrown at them, not a story about cerebral palsy and eating disorders. Northeast is believable and likeable as Sunny, and the chemistry between her and Mitte is effortless and organic.
Sunny’s past of sexual abuse and bulimia could have perhaps come across as a little disingenuous, and it does teeter on it at times, but the inclusion of some unexpectedly powerful scenes stops the trauma from becoming just a plot device, particularly one in which Sunny’s older sister confronts her about the sexual abuse. Northeast really does shine in these tenser scenes, easily shifting from seemingly wide eyed naivety to wounded and hostile vulnerability in just a moment. Not unlike Travis, they both wear masks to protect themselves from that bubbling vulnerability just below the surface.
Beyond all this, the movie is actually really funny. Samoan actor Italia Hunt plays Travis’ blind roommate Gordo and accounts for much of the comic relief, and I laughed and laughed and laughed whenever he came on the screen. There is an undeniable simplicity to the comedy and indeed to the film as a whole, and though some of the plotting does feel a little too convenient at times, it does allow for the actors to really make the most of their characters.
I loved this movie. I loved that it was sweet and earnest and idealistic and that it was everything you could want in a romantic comedy. Above all that, I felt proud that this was an Australian production and that it didn’t need the resources of a Hollywood film to deliver something so genuinely wonderful.
By Jock Lehman