In Standing Up for Sunny, RJ Mitte stars as Travis, a socially isolated, perennially grumpy, guy living with cerebral palsy. He has a major gripe with the world: the fact that there are other people in it. Travis lives by himself, but when vision impaired Gordo (Italia Hunt), an unexpected new roommate appears, he’s forced to engage with the world around him. Reluctantly, Travis is dragged to a pub by Gordo, where they see Sunny (Philippa Northeast) doing stand-up routine. Midway through the act, a heckler shouts some routine offensive sexist heckler remarks, throwing Sunny off. With a beer or two under his belt, Travis voices his anger at the heckler for interrupting Sunny, and in turn, the crowd finds his retorts hilarious. After the gig, Sunny’s boyfriend, radio DJ Mikey (Sam Reid), enlists Travis to help teach Sunny how to stand up for herself. Seeing this as an opportunity to be able to earn some extra money and boot Gordo out of the shared apartment, Travis reluctantly agrees.
While Steve Vidler’s first film since Blackrock may seem plot heavy given that synopsis, it’s far from the case, with Standing Up for Sunny being one of the most joyous and hilarious Australian films in recent times. RJ Mitte and Philippa Northeast are naturals, both displaying effortless comedic timing, alongside a rare level of chemistry, making this dual lead a real treat to watch. If the only encounter you’ve had with RJ Mitte has been his exemplary work on Breaking Bad, then you’d do yourself a great service by seeking out the downright hilarious Standing Up for Sunny.
And for Philippa Northeast, this is one heck of a feature film debut. Northeast has an immediate natural talent for capturing the eye of the camera, displaying a clear comfort for being on screen, all of which makes Sunny an engaging, endearing, and entertaining character to spend time with. Keep an eye on Philippa, as she’s definitely going to be a name you’ll be seeing more of in the future.
As Sunny and Travis bond, they find commonality with their own difficulties in life. For some, the immediacy of Sunny being open to Travis about her bulimia may feel a bit too sudden, but given the level of openness that Travis has when it comes to living with a disability, it’s understandable that Sunny would find comfort in that and allow herself to be open with a relative stranger. Again, it’s the commitment that both RJ Mitte and Philippa Northeast have to their roles that this emerging relationship feels effortless and natural.
With a wealth of rom-com tropes on board, such as the will-they-won’t-they tightrope and the shitty partner, it’s wonderful to see two lead actors give performances where you actually want their characters to get together. It takes a great director and writer to be able to make the familiar feel new, and with Steve Vidler’s finely tuned script and superb direction, these well-worn narrative beats carry a freshness and vibrancy to them.
While Standing Up for Sunny is centred by two truly brilliant performances, this is a film that’s jam packed with exceptional comedic performances across the board. Newcomer Italia Hunt is a pure treat as wingman Gordo. Armed with a ukele, Hunt’s Gordo brings a warmth and vibrancy that balances out against Travis’ grumpiness. Sam Reid’s Mikey is the ‘villain’ of the piece, but he’s not an out and out asshole. The relatability of Mikey as a genuine romantic possibility makes the inevitable romance between Travis and Sunny all the more grounded and believable. So often these douchebag boyfriends are outwardly dickish from the get go, but Mikey is a believable ‘nice guy’, and Reid plays him with a level of empathy that shows why Sunny would have fallen for him in the first place.
I watched Standing Up for Sunny in a packed audience at Cinefest Oz, and the reception was rapturous, with every comedic beat hitting exactly as intended. Jokes landed perfectly, and the laughter was genuine. I found myself laughing so hard that I missed a joke or two. It’s a shame then that Standing Up for Sunny is only getting a limited release theatrically before heading to dvd and video on demand platforms in the new year, sidestepping a theatrical release completely, because this is a film that thrives with an audience. I’m certain it’ll be just as enjoyable and entertaining at home, but this kind of comedy deserves to be experienced in a packed theatre.
There is so much to love about this film, with pitch perfect performances from RJ Mitte (please give him more comedic material, and please make him the romantic lead in more films) and Philppa Northeast, and a genuinely hilarious script, that I cannot recommend Standing Up for Sunny highly enough. It’s so rare to see a film that shines this brightly, and it’s so rare to see one that gives people with disabilities the chance to be funny. I loved this film, and I’m certain that you will love this film too.
Director: Steve Vidler
Cast: RJ Mitte, Philippa Northeast, Italia Hunt
Writer: Steve Vidler