“Sunny in the Dark” director Courtney Ware and lead actor Jay Huguley attended the second screening of their film at the Heartland Film Festival for an exclusive Q&A session with audience members. Read our review of the film and hear from the director and actor below.
It’s hard to escape the pains of life; for a therapist, it can be even harder. People retreat to their homes daily, seeking sanctuary from the chaos the world. But is that enough?
“Sunny in the Dark” explores the complexity of relationships, brokenness, and being truly known by another person. After winning three of the top awards at Northeast Film Festival in Sept., the narrative feature came to the opening weekend of Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. Two more screenings are also scheduled this week.
The story follows the life of family therapist Jonah Bock, played by actor Jay Huguley, as he seeks a safe haven from the pain he witnesses in his practice. After finding a loft apartment with extra soundproofing and security, Jonah feels he has finally found the retreat he’s been seeking. But little does he know, he’s not the only one using the loft as a hideaway: a homeless woman named Sunny lives in the crawlspace in his attic, and has no plans of leaving her hideout.
Despite sounding like the setting of a horror flick, “Sunny in the Dark” proves anything but that. The film verges on thriller at times -- when Sunny peers through cracks in the ceiling to watch Jonah’s routine or when Jonah almost catches Sunny underneath his bed -- but manages to somewhat shed the tone of creepiness set out by its original plot.
Yet a certain level of eeriness remains present throughout, and largely by intention. The abundance of close-up shots and slow camera panning keeps audience members on their toes. Accompanied by a soundtrack of impending suspense, at times certain scenes can feel like they’re straight out of a Martin Scorsese movie.
The audience is sucked into feeling empathy for both Jonah and Sunny as they tiptoe around each other's lives. Near the start of the film, the director drops subtle hints to the audience that Sunny has led a rough life, and needs this shelter to survive. Sunny times Jonah’s regimented daily routine on her wristwatch so she can crawl down the ladder during the day to eat, shower, read, and brush her teeth (guess who’s tooth brush she uses?). When Jonah returns from his long days as a therapist, there is no trace of Sunny and everything appears exactly how it was when he left that morning.
With such a bizarre plotline, the film could have easily gone the route of slapstick comedy or creepy horror film. But director Courtney Ware and filmwriter Mike Maden had bigger plans. When asked about the inspiration for the film in a Q&A session, Ware described the overarching theme of the film as being “truly known.”
“I think the inspiration (and writing) for the film comes from the question, how many times do people live in the same space and not truly know the other person? Almost to the point where you’re going through life, and you don’t really see the other person” said Ware.
Throughout the film, this concept is touched on in subtle and more pronounced ways. When Jonah leaves food out or drops a book by his desk, Sunny crawls down during the day to retrieve it. Slowly, the audience watches an odd sort of dependence form between the two. Sunny is looking for shelter; Jonah is looking for a place to withdraw into himself, to think, and to retreat from the world.
Early in the film, in one of the more insightful parts of the film, Jonah explains his professional motto to a client:
“The thing we most desire in life is to be known. Ironically, the things we most fear in life is also to be known,” says Jonah.
Playing into his own irony, Jonah keeps others from “knowing” him more than any other character. Late at night, Jonah lies awake in bed and speaks out loud to God. But on the other side of the ceiling, Sunny peers down at him through the cracks, writing down his questions and pleas in her notebook. She likes Jonah; and whether or not he knows it, Jonah seems to like her too.
This theme of loneliness resonated with Huguley as he played Jonah. As inspiration for his acting, Huguley described the loneliness he sees everyday.
““I was in New York a couple weeks ago -- I grew up there -- and I was on the subway looking around feeling like, ‘I remember when everyone used to look at each other on the subway,’” said Huguley.
Emotional isolation can be difficult to capture on screen, but Huguley manages to deliver a sincere performance despite the slow-moving plot. His character doesn’t feel forced, but rather familiar in a peculiar way, like a strange neighbor from a few years back.
“There’s a way of playing the Jonah character that’s really quirky; but Jay brought this subtle realness to it, the way he was portraying the character. We knew this was the right way to go,” said Ware.
True as this may be, actress Hannah Ward may have stolen the show for many in her stunning performance as Sunny. With only a few lines of dialogue, Ward masterfully portrays her character’s thoughts and desires through physical expression alone. From her tiny crawl space, she quietly tiptoes around scenes, stifling sneezes and holding her breath to remain hidden.
Paired with the artful directing of Ware, the trio create a powerful narrative on loneliness and being vulnerable in relationships. But a word of caution: moviegoers who dislike open endings may feel let down when the credits roll.
“I definitely don’t like tying things up in a nice bow” said Ware. “But I think that’s one of the great things about film, is that it causes you to ask questions and make that decision on your own. Whatever you come up with what for the ending is probably correct. It’s probably right on.”