Ryan Ward laughingly cringed when asked about his quote: “As an artist, there is no worse curse than to be born Canadian.” “Man, I should really take that down [from IMDb],” he mused, before clarifying that he’s proud to be a Canadian filmmaker, but it’s the lack of support for new works which he hates to see. This is a common trope among new filmmakers who struggle with the Catch-22 of funding: governmental grants often aren’t willing to take risks on newcomers, while private backers like to see an official stamp on the project as a form of reassurance. But funding roadblocks weren’t about to stop Ward, whose first feature film, Son of Sunshine, will be screening at the Carlton Cinema April 8–14.
A film about a young man struggling with both mental illness and his own identity, Son of Sunshine deals with abuse, addiction, and failed attempts at connection. Sonny (Ryan Ward), the son of a heroin addict, undergoes a risky new procedure to treat his Tourette’s syndrome. But once his disorder begins to diminish, he discovers a whole new world of problems: in his relationship with his alcoholic girlfriend, with his sister, and most importantly with his past.
Ward wrote, directed, and stars in the film, a commendable feat for any filmmaker, let alone a new one. While the script errs on the side of melodramatic at times, Ward’s performance as Sonny anchors the film. Coming from a theatrical background (Evil Dead: The Musical fans will recognize Ward as Ash), he steals every scene with a shockingly visceral portrayal of mental illness. Indeed, capturing the frustration and intricacies of mental illness and addiction was crucial for Ward. Before he began filming, he did a substantial amount of research, working closely with the Tourette’s Syndrome Clinic, as well as with the safe injection site at CMCC South Riverdale.
Filming the movie in Toronto, Ward didn’t want to cast the city as itself but rather as “an urban anywhere.” Despite this, Torontonians will easily spot familiar locations, including an early scene filmed in Sherbourne Station. Perhaps one of the strongest moments in the film, it’s of Sonny riding the subway, struggling with his Tourette’s under the gaze of those around him. Shot on a shallow lens and with tight frames, the cramped style captures what many people run into daily on their commute: someone struggling with a mental disorder in a public space. When asked how he captured the documentary feel of the scene, Ward simply replied, “It’s real.” It was an encounter on the TTC with a man with Tourette’s which sparked Ward’s desire to begin writing the script.
While talking with Ward, it quickly becomes apparent how Son of Sunshine got made: passion and grit. Entirely privately funded, it’s a testament to Ward and his producer Paul Fler’s drive, though the process is far from ideal. As Ward notes, without a system in place to encourage young and upcoming filmmakers Canada won’t develop a new generation of auteurs. While our French-speaking compatriots seem to have figured out the formula—with new directors of international acclaim such as Xavier Dolan, Denis Villeneuve, and Denis Côté (though the latter’s views on funding are another story)—Ward worries that English-Canada’s focus on distribution over artistic pursuits creates a funding formula that produces generic genre films. Son of Sunshine, by contrast, is certainly not that.
Stills from Son of Sunshine courtesy Ioana Vasile.