A well-intentioned attempt to illuminate the plight of homeless youth falls flat in “Sugar,” the dramatically inert narrative debut of director Rotimi Rainwater. Although the film is based in part on the filmmaker’s personal experiences more than 20 years ago, its compassion and careful sidestepping of exploitation tropes can’t make up for a fundamental lack of depth and urgency in the storytelling. Limited theatrical exposure will go unnoticed, with ancillary potential modest at best.
Foul-mouthed and emotionally guarded runaway Sugar (Shenae Grimes) has formed a makeshift family with a group of boys in Venice Beach, Calif., including ex-Mormon b.f. Marshall (Marshall Allman) and baby-faced surrogate brother Ronnie (Austin Williams). Kindly social worker and former street kid Bishop (Wes Studi) wants to learn more about Sugar’s troubled past, but his efforts go nowhere until her uncle (Angus Macfadyen) shows up and spills her secrets in the hopes of bringing her home.
Pic touches on drug use, hustling and mental illness (erstwhile “High School Musical” star Corbin Bleu has a few scenes as a schizophrenic artist), but largely dodges the more sensationalized aspects of street life in favor of endless scenes of kids just hanging around and goofing off. Without the formal chops or nuanced insight a stronger filmmaker might bring to the project, Rainwater’s approach doesn’t add up to much. The characters remain at a remove, and the pic could leave some viewers with the unsettling impression that being homeless could be worse.
Young actors looking to stretch their dramatic muscles are impeded by an unfortunate combination of sketchy characterizations and on-the-nose dialogue. While teen soap veteran Grimes has the bulk of the screen time, Allman makes the most vivid impression as a sensitive soul still haunted by a repressive upbringing. Performances from the elder cast members, including Nastassja Kinski as a briefly seen Christian charity volunteer, are universally bland.
Tech contributions are generally passable, with the exception of a lackluster sound mix in which the dialogue is frequently muffled by ambient noise.