A lot of how one responds to Sugar will be a function of how one feels about homosexuality. Not the topic in the abstract, but as depicted openly on the screen. And I’m not talking about two chicks doing it in a movie, which I think we can all agree there should be far more of. I mean the other kind.
While there is no porn level explicit sex in the movie, you see as much male homosexual kissing and caressing and nudity and all that as you would see of heterosexuality in the typical movie with an R rating. Maybe a little more in fact. There is usually no genitalia in a non-porn heterosexual movie; there is plenty here (always limp).
It’s gross to me, but not gross in the moral disapproval sense. Just gross in the way watching some unpleasant medical procedure would be gross, or watching people eating some food I find really foul would be gross.
In principle I don’t see any reason homosexuality should be avoided or limited or treated differently from heterosexuality in movies. So in that sense I’m all for movies like this. I’m decidedly not of the “Well they can do whatever disgusting thing they want behind closed doors, but they have no business doing all that gay stuff in front of people and talking about it and everything” school of thought. (Again, anything like that that you wouldn’t say about heterosexuality, you have no standing to say about homosexuality. If one kind of, say, kissing is acceptable on the street, or in a restaurant, or in a movie, then so is the other.)
But it’s still gross in the other sense.
Beyond the gay stuff, there’s the secondary question: Is the movie any good?
My answer is it’s OK.
On his eighteenth birthday, a virgin is given an interesting present by his peculiar 12 year old sister: Liquor, a joint, and advice to “Go downtown and have sex.” (Their single mom is pretty liberal about sex and drug stuff too, but not quite that much.)
So the naïve but adventurous boy not only goes looking for thrills that night, but embarks on a more thorough exploration of his city’s (it was filmed in Toronto) seamy underside of drugs, booze, gay and straight prostitution, etc. From the very first night he embarks upon a relationship with a male hustler.
He reacts to the bulk of his “walk on the wild side” with appreciative wonder, from the drunk pregnant drug dealer hitting on him in a sleazy bar, to the entertaining drag queen streetwalkers getting in a bloody cat fight, to all the interesting differently colored pills urged on him, to the fact that his new boyfriend is actually wanting to take things slow initially and just do foreplay and mutual masturbation and such.
There are also the amusing clients of his boyfriend—the middle aged john who puts on an apron and tidies up the hustler’s house and gets verbally abused and spanked if he gets out of line (“Sometimes I break a dish on purpose,” he admits); the very heavy, unattractive, disabled woman that the protagonist commends his boyfriend for being willing to service, etc.
Not that it’s all fun and sunshine. For instance, he’s less than thrilled that when his boyfriend finally does decide to take his virginity, it’s in front of a paying, voyeuristic client.
Though on the one hand that kind of world would never have been my bag (I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I like the sex part fine but wouldn’t be into the gay sex), I suppose there is something vaguely appealing to me about it.
I think my contrarian and leftist nature makes me more inclined toward the rebellious, socially disapproved of, counterculturish version of debauchery than the more mainstream, acceptable kind.
That is, when I was exposed to the party lifestyle on a semi-regular basis (as an observer rather than participant) for the first five years or whatever of my adulthood, I was a lot more comfortable hanging out with, say, the exotic denizens of the New Orleans French Quarter, than frat parties and drunk snobby social climbing young people at upscale bars, and rich kids driving in from the suburbs to bang prostitutes for sport.
I feel more kinship with the folks in a movie like this, than I do with “respectable” people who go through a tolerated wild period in their youth where they go slumming with their social inferiors and experience some forbidden fruit before settling into their futures in banks and law firms and marriages.
Now that I think about it, the protagonist in this movie ends up manifesting the same preference (unlike me, as a participant rather than an observer).
Because after a traumatic experience opens his eyes to what can happen in the lifestyle he’s been experiencing (he fights with his boyfriend and they break up, the boyfriend turns out not just to use drugs recreationally but to be a lot more dependent on crack and other drugs than was apparent, the boyfriend spirals down and soon ends up dead), it would be understandable if he got scared off and returned to his safe, suburban world, and this became simply a youthful wild interlude in an otherwise mainstream life.
But this turns out not to be a Somersault-style tale of a teenager experimenting with sex while away from home and then thinking better of it. Literally on the day of his boyfriend’s funeral, the protagonist is back cruising for a gay hook-up (under the approving, watchful eye of his still peculiar 12 year old sister), and the movie ends with him happily headed back to the subculture of the streets that he’s grown attached to.
I didn’t find that ending totally satisfactory. Not so much that I approve or disapprove of the choice, or that I find it believable or not believable that he’d eventually make that choice, but I think more just that the immediacy of it didn’t sit well with me.
I felt like the movie wanted us to believe that he had had this emotionally really important connection with his boyfriend, and that the ending of that and certainly the boyfriend’s subsequent death were devastating to him, but that’s all undercut by the fact that while the boyfriend’s being buried this guy’s mind’s already a million miles away and he’s looking to flirt and play. There’s no period of grieving, there’s no period of aversion to the subculture associated with the traumatic events, there’s no period of deliberation about which world he wants for his future. It’s too “easy” a choice for him.
The filmmaking on the whole is not bad. It’s a little shaky here and there, and has the feel of a low budget indie, but it’s mostly fine. For example, there are some scenes, some lines, that are played for humor, and they mostly work. I chuckled at several things in the film, and I didn’t feel like those moments were inappropriate. Yes, the movie is in large part about people who’ve fucked up their lives with drugs and such, but instead of making an exclusively grim, shocking, exposé of life in the gutter, the filmmaker chose to give a more balanced view of the lifestyle that includes the fun, the humor, the human connection, and all that’s appealing about living in that kind of social environment. And I like that fine.
But as far as my personal, subjective reaction to the film, I admit, as I mentioned at the outset, it’s colored significantly by the “in your faceness” of the male homosexuality on the screen. Just like with The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros it was hard not to focus on the sheer extremity of how flaming that little kid is, to some extent I was distracted from the story and other aspects of this movie because I couldn’t help contemplating “Well hell, how gay is this thing gonna get?”
So my assessment of Sugar is that it should rank maybe slightly below the middle of the films I’ve written about so far—so decent certainly, since I’m only watching and writing about movies I expect to like—but that my actual enjoyment of the film was a tad lower than that.