Movie Review: Sugar
By Matthew Huntley
November 26, 2013
Does anyone ever choose to be homeless? That's the running question throughout Sugar, a raw, cynical film about young people living on the streets of Los Angeles. Despite the hardships of their situation, the characters are relatively upbeat, probably because they never feel like they're alone, which is both a good thing and a sad thing in this case.
The story follows a close-knit group of adults in their early 20s and one minor as they parade around Venice Beach with no clear direction in mind. Day to day, they either hang out on random corners, along the L.A. river basin, or they take the bus to and from Hollywood, all while relying on free handouts from strangers and working odd jobs to survive. They don't seem to care about how they look since they mostly go unnoticed anyway. Each comes from a broken home, or no home at all, and to them their freedom is their most important possession, and in an effort to feel like they're in control of their lives, they'll tell you this is the choice they've made.
But when it comes Sugar (Shenae Grimes), we get the sense her homelessness is not something she ran toward, but rather the result of her running away from something else. The opening scene more or less tells us what this "something else" is, which I won't reveal here, but Sugar's recollection of the tragic event gives her nightmares and has her waking up scared and anxious.
Perhaps this is why she figures it doesn't matter where she sleeps, since her nightmares and inner demons will follow her wherever she goes. At the present moment, she sleeps under a bridge next to her boyfriend Marshall (Marshall Allman), a drug addict with a short fuse. Despite his small size, he's ready to fight anybody who gives him the slightest look of condescension, and credit to Allman for convincing us his character would be merciless, even before he proves it during a violent scene involving a skateboard.
The other members of Sugar's posse include a minor named Ronnie (Austin Williams), who's just about 15 or 16 and whom Sugar claims as her responsibility, if only because it give her purpose; Free (William Peltz), who doesn't mind living his days on the streets so long as he can sleep in a warm bed with a different girl every night, which he's managed to do so far; and Sketch (Corbin Bleu), an artist with a slow mind but a sweet heart.
One of the ways Sugar makes money is by talking to a counselor named Bishop (Wes Studi) at a youth shelter. He pays her to document her life on the streets and write about it in a journal, perhaps in an effort to use her as a successful case study and get her and other kids like her off the street, hopefully reconnecting them to their families and society.
Sugar has a family who loves her, including a concerned uncle (Angus Macfadyen), and we know she's smart and capable enough to make something of herself, but fear, grief and sadness have paralyzed her from taking the steps to go back home. It's easier for her to simply hide and laugh things off, but deep down she knows she can't do this forever. Yes, she's probably right that living day to day on the streets is easier than taking full responsibility - like working a job, dealing with people, making important decisions, etc. - but the long-term effects of such a lifestyle eventually wear on you, or at least they do to someone as bright as Sugar, and she knows it.
We've seen enough movies of this nature to know it will likely take a tragic or near-tragic event to force the protagonist to come to grips with her past. The overall trajectory of the story and ensuing drama are mostly familiar and inevitable, which is not to say they're ineffectual, but the heart of the film stems from its honest, unblinking observations of its characters and the dialogue they share, which likely underlines the bonds real-life homeless people form. On this level, it feels very true. The director and co-writer, Rotimi Rainwater, supposedly based it on his own experiences and he's made a deeply personal project.
"Sugar" is not the most professionally made movie, and its low-budget and somewhat inexperienced cast are sometimes distracting and interrupt the momentum of the storytelling, but its substance and the particularly strong performance by Grimes raise it above just a simple cautionary tale. Despite the overly manipulative ending, we truly care about the heroine and hope she finds her way home, or at least a place where she chooses to be and no longer has to bear nightmares.