Dir: Nicolas Cage. US. 2002. 110mins.

Nicolas Cage's first film as a director is a moody, atmospheric Southern drama starring up-and-comer James Franco in a sexily tragic role that Cage reportedly considered taking on himself earlier in his career. While it could eventually lead to bigger jobs behind the camera for Cage, the Gold Circle Films production probably has limited box office potential. In the US, where it is set for a Dec 27 launch in New York and LA and a national rollout in January, distributor Samuel Goldwyn/IDP will have to hope that Cage's name can help sell younger up-market audiences on the rather flat, downbeat tone and sleazy milieu. Independent distributors in the international market - where Sonny premiered at this summer's Deauville Festival and is being licensed by Vortex Pictures - face an even trickier task, although the New Orleans setting and an intriguing supporting cast may help.

Perhaps the film's major achievement is its evocation of the underside of the Big Easy - not the New Orleans of Mardi Gras or even Anne Rice, but the grimy, sad New Orleans of workaday hookers and their hangers-on.

Franco's title character is a boyishly handsome 26-year-old returning home, in the early 1980s, after a stint in the army. Sonny's mother, ageing prostitute turned madam Jewel (Blethyn), welcomes him back to her crumbling French Quarter home, expecting him to return to work as her top money-maker, a "natural-born whore" always in demand among the city's wealthy married ladies. But Sonny, who starts a tentative romance with Jewel's other 'worker' Carol (Suvari), is intent on escaping his mother's world to find a different life.

The script, by TV movie veteran John Carlen, paints a chillingly convincing picture of the whoring life (it is said to be based on some of Carlen's own life experiences) and captures a touching camaraderie between the hustling denizens of the French Quarter, who see their clients (and everyone else) as "squares". It is less strong, however, on dramatic development, resulting in a story that seems to stay on one subdued note throughout.

Franco, who won a Golden Globe for his performance in cable movie James Dean and was most recently seen in City By The Sea, fits perfectly into his role and brings to it an appealing Dean-style world-weariness. But he doesn't quite dig down to the emotional depths that might have made Sonny a truly tragic figure. Instead, it is Blethyn and Stanton (as Henry, a small time thief and Jewel's long-time companion) who provide the emotional foundation. Both actors excel, in their one big scene together and in separate scenes as their characters attempt to push the faltering Sonny in opposite life directions.

Cage (who also makes a brief and heavily disguised cameo) steers the drama with a promisingly skilled and restrained hand, though there are a couple of awkwardly staged scenes and occasional lapses into over-direction. He is assisted by director of photography Barry Markowitz (All The Pretty Horses, Sling Blade), who creates some poetic lighting effects and shoots the action in an over saturated colour palette of blues, greens and yellows. Other valuable behind-the-camera work comes from production designer Monroe Kelly (Interview with the Vampire) and composer Clint Mansell (Requiem For A Dream and cult indie band Pop Will Eat Itself), who contributes a sparse but effective music score.

Prod cos: Saturn Films, Gold Circle Films Dist
US dist:
Samuel Goldwyn/IDP
Int'l sales:
Vortex Pictures
Exec prod:
Norm Waitt
Cage, Norm Golightly, Paul Brooks
Co-exec prod:
Glenn S Gainor
Assoc prod:
Debra L Gainor
John Carlen
Barry Markowitz
Prod des:
Monroe Kelly
Howard Smith
Clint Mansell
Main cast:
James Franco, Mena Suvari, Brenda Blethyn, Harry Dean Stanton, Scott Caan