Review: ‘Mostly Sunny,’ a documentary about Sunny Leone

There have been rumblings that Bollywood actress, singer, and former porn star Sunny Leone has either disowned or distanced herself from Canadian filmmaker Dilip Mehta’s documentary about her life and career, Mostly Sunny. Mehta has cited to Indian press that the actress’ unhappiness about certain aspects of the final cut of the film led to her no-showing the doc’s premiere at TIFF this past September. Leone and her husband/manager Daniel Weber have remained largely silent about the film to the press, but after watching Mostly Sunny, I can see where there would be misgivings on all sides of this argument.

I also can’t see why anyone would want to see or make this film in the first place. Mostly Sunny is an amateurish mess created by a filmmaker who wants to mount a biopic about one of India’s most controversial stars and a subject that wants such rigid control over her image and branding that every scene becomes meaningless and useless. It’s a case of a filmmaker getting steamrolled by their subject, and a subject who can’t realize that her attempts to stay on her bullet points make her come across as callow, shallow, and materialistic. As a “revealing” documentary that tries to look at one woman’s quest to overcome her former profession and start a more “respectable” one, Mostly Sunny is an unmitigated disaster in terms of content, style, and construction. She comes off as horrible and almost comically sheltered and uniformed, and while I don’t think that was Mehta’s intent, the film built around her persona is even more grating. This isn’t a film so much as an E! Network special run amok.

Born in Sarnia, Ontario to Indian parents before moving to Orange County, California, Sunny Leone got into the adult entertainment industry by way of an agent who turned her onto doing shoots for Penthouse and various other lad mags. She would become a Penthouse Pet of the Year and go on to star in a plethora of hardcore sex flicks, some of which she would make towards the end of her career exclusively with her musician and former steel worker husband. These dirty flicks made her a superstar around the world, particularly in India where such a position of esteem in such an unjustly derided profession led to her being equally beloved and reviled in one of the world’s most notoriously puritanical countries. She has consistently been one of the most Googled people in the world throughout the 2000s, made her first huge mainstream splash by popping up on India’s equivalent of Big Brother, and now that she has left her on-camera porn days behind her and set her sights on becoming a mainstream talent, her popularity has grown exponentially.

Mehta (director of 2009’s Cooking with Stella and brother of filmmaker Deepa Mehta, who gets a writing credit here) has a background in photojournalism, but seems to have little clue how to craft a coherent film about a celebrity. Being a journalist who captures life as it plays is one thing. It’s an entirely different beast to try and capture the essence of a megastar at the height of their fame with any degree of documentary truth. Celebrities, particularly those as well known and well versed in the game as Leone, love the camera and never want to look bad, weak, or vulnerable in front of it unless they can turn a negative emotion into some kind of well rehearsed positive. Mehta, wanting to capture life “as is,” sets about creating an amateurish looking work that seeks to capture all of his interviews with Leone, her family members (or at least those willing to talk about the actress’ racy past on camera), and those who work for her at candid moments. What he doesn’t realize is that no megastar will ever be as candid as the filmmaker wants if there’s a camera around. The Rolling Stones killed that idea with Cocksucker Blues and no one has ever been that candid in a “verite” documentary about celebrity status since.

The moments spent away from Leone are awkward (especially when following her happily employed but stressed out personal assistant or when talking to film industry types), but every moment spent with the actress comes off as tiresome and rehearsed to within an inch of its life by the film’s subject. Even her catty jabs at haters who seek to insult her by remarking upon her past profession strike as something that she has said to herself in the mirror hundreds of times before so it sounds just right coming out of her mouth. Moments that should be illuminating and realistic, like a return trip to Sarnia or capturing her shock at her first huge Bollywood mainstream crossover tanking with audiences and critics, still feel like someone who is “on” and never letting their guard down for a second. She knows that Mehta most likely won’t do a second take to preserve the integrity of his film, and such obvious calculation makes her come across as an off putting person to be around. Then again, she doesn’t seem to need help from Mehta’s lack of documentarian chops for that to happen. In the film’s worst scene she bemoans that living in Los Angeles means she has to clean up her own dog’s shit, whereas if she were still in India, someone else would do that for her.

Mostly Sunny makes Leone look ignorant, arrogant, and very rarely like a strong, capable woman who in her own words is good at “turning a quarter into a dollar,” but I can’t even tell what the point of Mehta’s work is here. There’s no sense of a timeline, and it wasn’t long into the film that I started to feel like it had been assembled almost out of some kind of free association technique. It bounces around wildly between the personal and professional aspects of Leone’s life, with each sequence ending on as emotional of a note as possible before moving swiftly onto something different.  Leone isn’t letting anyone into her life beyond a surface level with her interviews here, but Mehta isn’t helping by not knowing how to frame the story beyond a bog standard rags to riches tale. There are tantalizing conversations that could be had here about Leone’s curious relationship to one of the biggest filmmaking industries in the world or in terms of how she balances her personal life with public perception of her, but Mehta drops them as soon as they’re brought up and never comes back around to looking at them. Every scene of Mostly Sunny feels like it was made with only seconds of thought put into shooting and editing, and while I know that couldn’t possibly be the case since any movie is tough to make, what I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall for this film’s editorial meetings.

Mostly Sunny isn’t a look at a human being. It’s a look at a rigidly controlled brand that’s being dictated by the film’s subject to a filmmaker that doesn’t know what to do with it (or one who has given up out of frustration). There are, however, two positive things in this film, but sadly neither does anything to help the film’s construction. The relationship between Sunny and Daniel seems genuinely loving and supportive, and Sunny’s intense work ethic is something to be admired and commended. She’s inarguably more interesting than this film makes her out to be and that even she herself will seemingly give credit for, but no one comes out of this debacle looking good. I feel awful for all parties involved here. Leone might be right to distance herself from this, but really everyone involved should.

Mostly Sunny becomes available on on Tuesday, January 10, and opens theatrically in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Halifax, and Calgary on Friday, January 13.

Check out the trailer for Mostly Sunny:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.