Film Review: ‘Sugar’

Sugar Review

This dramatically inert story of homeless youth reveals a fundamental lack of depth and urgency in its storytelling.

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.

Film Review: 'Sugar'

Reviewed on DVD, West Hollywood, Nov. 21, 2013. Running time: 93 MIN.


A Traverse Media release of a Village Entertainment production in association with Narrator Entertainment, Henry Island Productions and Troy Entertainment. Produced by Andrew Troy, Brian Neal, Erin Ward, Ari Palitz, Jim Rosenthal, Rotimi Rainwater. Executive producers, Joe Krieg, Sammy Van, Fred Smithson, Peter Simon, Steven Vasquez, Chris Ward. Co-producers, Emily Nelson, Sarah-Raquel Jimenez. Co-executive producers, Tony Aloupis, Debbie Shepherd, Jasper Graham.


Directed by Rotimi Rainwater. Screenplay, Rainwater, Tony Aloupis, story by Rainwater. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Gavin Kelly; editor, Michael Palmerio; music, Andrew Troy; music supervisor, Ashley Bearfield, Alison Tavel; production designer, Travis Zariwny; set decorator, Victor A. Sandoval; costume designer, Lauren Shapiro; sound, Carrie Sheldon; supervising sound editor-re-recording mixer, Troy; stunt coordinator, Brett Curtze, Johnny Yang; line producer, James R. Rosenthal; associate producer, Chris Dupre, Carol Randinelli Stark; assistant director, Bernie Gewissler; casting, Dean E. Fronk, Donald Paul Pemrick.


Shenae Grimes, Marshall Allman, Austin Williams, Wes Studi, Corbin Bleu, Will Peltz, Angus Macfadyen, Nastassja Kinski.

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  1. Rorimi your film Sugar was so real that anyone with a heart would be deeply moved. I have a deep passion and respect for other humans who are less fortunate. I was inspired Sugar helped heal some deep wounds. Thank you for inviting us.

  2. Christopher M. Hammer says:

    I can’t comment on the technical aspects of the film but I do think that the movie’s message itself needs to be heard and this review does nothing to help further its noble cause. I think Mr. Rainwater’s movie has serious message to get across – I don’t think it should be overly dramatic or formulaic and I think that it’s a raw portrayal is necessary. People at the Garden State Film Festival where I saw it were silent and aghast at the ending – the movie made an impression on me and many others. It’s a pity more people can’t see past what you’ve written. “Bland” this isn’t. Not at all.

  3. arya stark says:

    Well it looks like some people are upset that their movie sucks. All these “comments” seem a little suspect. I haven’t seen this movie, but I know for a fact that Shanae Grimes can’t act if her life depended on it, and the fact that Corbin Bleu is the “schizophrenic artist” just confirms that this movie is a hot mess.

  4. Angie says:

    I saw this film today and I’m very happy I did. It shows a reality that we try not to think about . Bravo for making a film that made me laugh and cry and that really touched me. Next time I run into a homeless person I will give them some sugar. Thanks to this film. I loved the characters especially Ronnie.

  5. Jean Shaunnesy says:

    Did you really see this film? It was great!!

  6. Lexie Gonzalez says:

    I was able to see this at the Manhattan Film Festival at Hunter College this summer. And you are way off base about this. I am graduating with a degree in sociology and work with homeless mothers on the weekends. This is the most honest portrayal of homeless youth I’ve ever seen. Kids on the street do just sit around and goof off, what else can they do? I don’t know about all the technical stuff, but bravo for making this film. Get it out there.

  7. Kevin Rogers says:

    I saw this last week in DC, you’re out of your mind. I’m not too big to say I was almost in tears after seeing this film. And I wasn’t alone. This is a great film.

  8. April Johnson says:

    I just saw this today and while I do think that technically it could have used some work, and it seems like a first time director’s attempt at filmmaking, I have worked with homeless youth and have two issues with your criticism. While the movie making could have been better, this is a VERY realistic and authentic view of homelessness. And secondly, there should be a social responsibility when reviewing a film like this because there is a good message with this film and just saying it’s bad will dissuade people from going to see it which would be a shame because this film does a good job at potentially bringing to light the issue of homeless youth. I truly think someone should address that. I would hate that this issue would be overlooked because the director had short comings.

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