It’s hard to review a movie like Sugar honestly without feeling like a heel. The director and co-writer, Rotimi Rainwater, created the film to draw attention to the plight of homeless youth. The film has been screened for congress, a coordinating Indiegogo campaign is raising money to provide food for homeless youth, and the films list of “partners” is a whos-who of homeless advocacy groups (USICH, National Coalition for the Homeless, National Network for Youth, Alliance to End Homelessness, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, etc.). Sugar was made for a good cause by a filmmaker who has experienced homelessness himself. It is a well intentioned movie. Unfortunately it’s not a well made movie.
Sugar (Shenae Grimes) is a homeless 20 year old living in Los Angeles with her “family” of other young adults. Unlike many of her friends, Sugar didn’t run away from an abusive family. She’s on the streets suffering from PTSD after her family was killed in a car accident. The movie shows the daily life of homeless teens – the boredom, the begging, the casual conflicts and romances, and of course, the lure of addiction. Sugar’s boyfriend, Marshall (Marshall Allman) is rapidly succumbing to addiction himself. Free (William Peltz), the “enlightened” one in the group, tells Sugar she needs to leave LA before the scene gets worse, but Sugar won’t go without Ronnie (Austin Williams), a young teen dodging the foster care system.
Trying to get Sugar and her friends off the street are Sister Nadia (Nastassja Kinski in a paper thin role) and Bishop (Wes Studi). Bishop seems to work at some sort of community center and builds a relationship with Sugar, encouraging her to journal about her life. This journal forms the voice-over narrative for the movie as Sugar tells us repeatedly how tough things are “out here”. “I’m no poet,” she says to Bishop at one point, and I have to agree. Sugar’s reflections are about as well developed as you’d expect from someone who missed their last year or two of English comp.
Late in the movie Sugar learns that an uncle has been searching for her, prepared to take her home to live with his family. After her years on the street, will she be able to accept the security of a home and family again? What about her young charge, Ronnie, and sweet but irresponsible Marshall? What will become of them? Ideally, watching the movie, we should be caught up enough in the characters to be really concerned. But Sugar didn’t work for me. The predictable plot and flat dialogue made it impossible to buy into the story. Shenae Grimes is only passable as Sugar, and sometimes annoying. That’s unfortunate since we never get away from her. Marshall Allman (Blue Like Jazz) does make Marshall a likable and empathetic character, and one you can almost believe exists.
As for Bishop, Wes Studi’s performance was actually painful to watch. Studi has had an impressive career but his performance in Sugar is stilted and thoroughly unconvincing. I can’t help but think that an inexperienced director was behind the clumsiness of the acting in Sugar. Flashback scenes to Sugar’s tragedy show a similar lack of skill.
Also, at risk of sounding petty, the autoharp should be used only judiciously in a film soundtrack. To be clear: Sugar uses too much autoharp.
I wish I could give Sugar a more positive review. For the sake of Rotimi Rainwater’s goal of drawing both attention and practical aid to homeless youth, I wish he’d made a better movie. The subject is worthy of attention, but this movie is not up to igniting activism. Instead, I’d recommend bypassing Sugar and going straight to some of the film’s partner organizations for information and service opportunities.