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"I'm bad news. You know that, right?"
Why is it sometimes pornography seems sweetly like a teenage construct? Sugar reminds you of puberty's relentless all-consuming preoccupation with sex, and makes you remember those days when you first discovered "dirty" things and obsessed about them. It is the story of Cliff, a normal teenager living in Toronto with his single mom and spooky wise-beyond-her-years sister Cookie. On the eve of Cliff's eighteenth birthday, twelve year-old Cookie gives her brother some vodka, a joint, and and an admonition to "go find sex." He ends up heading downtown where he stumbles into a dark alley full of male hustlers his own age. There he meets hardened drug-addled professional Butch, and they seem to hit it off. The rest of the movie details Cliff's crush on Butch, and how the two influence each other in one boy's strange and the other's suburban ways. Cliff is about to become obsessed with "dirty" things, and Butch is going to be jealous of his friend's cushy homelife with a liberal mother and hyperactive but insightful sister.
Cliff is played with wide-eyed innocence by Andre Noble (Twist, Prom Queen: The Marc Hall Story). Andre passed away last year after eating a flower on a camping trip while vacationing in his home country of Newfoundland. His premature death coats Sugar with a sense of melancholy akin to watching The Crow and remembering Brandon Lee. Butch is played to the hilt by Brendan Fehr, who is best known as Michael from the series Roswell. Both actors have their fan bases, and (oddly) both appeal to the teenage set. So what made them both appear in a rather racy arthouse flick that can be seen as an update of Midnight Cowboy?
The script for Sugar was based on several short stories by Bruce LaBruce. If you're not familiar with the name, he's a celebrated gay artist who dabbles in writing, photography, and making his own movies (like Hustler White and Raspberry Reich). He's a subject of hot debated in the gay community, because he has openly come out against mainstream homos who worship Madonna and wear Abercrombie and Fitch, and his work often straddles a line between pornography and art (often crossing that line after moving it). I wasn't sure how true the movie had stayed to the punky source material, so I e-mailed Bruce to ask him about what he thought. Here is his reply (the man hardly ever uses caps, so no you are not looking at typos):
"the central characters of Sugar, Butch, Cliff, and Cookie, remained pretty faithful to the characters in my stories. i wrote the stories in the eighties, so certain details about the hustler scene were updated, such as the advent of crack. to tell you the truth, it's been a while since i read the stories, but watching the movie was a very odd experience because it really brought back the stories—which were quite autobiographical—for me in a surprisingly faithful and moving way. it really felt like someone was interpreting a chapter of my life. the movie didn't pull any punches at all, and maintained the tricky balance between a harsh subject and a kind of romantic point of view that i attempted in my stories. the stories were self-published in the context of a homo punk fanzine, and the movie really had a nice punk ethos, i thought. the movie also captured the toronto hustler milieu, which is very specific"
LaBruce's stories provide tricky terrain for Sugar to cover. The movie does handle its themes and characters well, and hits the appropriate emotional notes for this relationship. Most people will be tempted to label Sugar a "coming out" story, but it's much more than that. It will disturb some because it refuses to look away from the more sordid details of Butch's lifestyle. We see him getting paid to make love to a morbidly obese woman; though the act appears revolting, it has a sweetness that can not be denied. He pays attention to her, makes her feel special, and then leaves several hundred dollars richer (from her disability fund). It's a mix of the sordid and sweet not often seen in cinema outside of Warhol's projects in the '70s.
Sugar was burdened with many production problems during its filming. It was shot on location in Toronto during a savage snowstorm and at the height of the SARS scare in Canada. The filmmakers were forced to use only Canadian actors and crew, so its full of Canuck celebrities freezing their butts off in rundown downtown Toronto. Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead (2004), Go) plays a pregnant drug dealer. She turns in her usual brutually honest portrayal that typifies what the entire cast was shooting for. It all feels like cinema verité because of the location shoots and the authentically Canadian cast. Its transfer is riddled with grain, but for once that seems to add to the ambiance. The audio mix is a basic 2.0 stereo that is fine for the intimate feel of the movie. It all feels dirty and downtrodden, which seems logical. There are no extras on the disc at all. You simply get a spoonful of Sugar and nothing else.
TLA Releasing usually seems to provide gay movies with ultra-pretty casts and vapid storylines. Usually their discs are loaded with pretty model types going through the motions just to titilate their largely gay audience. Sugar is a rare movie that features plenty of male nudity, but almost no sugar-coating to make it look dazzling or fantastic. This is all back alleys and public bathroom stalls. In the gay community it could be referred to as "rough trade," and Sugar proudly lets it all hang out in a defiant way. Its a form of homosexual rebellion against objectification and the idea that "gay" means "pretty." It comes off feeling like a true story rather than a cinematic tall tale. It is a thing of beauty for its honesty and frankness in portraying the hustler scene. Most people will find it unsettling and a little gross, but that is the point. Prostitutes are not people who end up shopping on Rodeo Drive despite what Pretty Woman may have led you to believe. Their paths usually mirror Butch's ultimate fate in this movie rather than Julia Roberts. Both Brendan Fehr and Andre Noble give courageous, fearless performances. It's not going to appeal to all palates, but it is certainly worth a look. Sugar is not as sweet and idealized as most gay movies, and for that it feels revelatory. It is an epiphany painted in hues of the bittersweet.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
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