Loosely drawn from late-1980s short stories by Canadian “bad boy” Bruce La Bruce, “Sugar” sports the expected outre elements — sex, drugs, reckless self-destruction — but also has streaks of tenderness, pathos, and directorial skill that his own screen works seldom approach. Only the second feature by stage vet John Palmer (first was the obscure “Me,” made exactly 30 years ago), this tale of tortured love between a gay youth and street hustler juggles a complex load of emotional and tonal colors within an admirably lean runtime. It should attract limited arthouse distribution and decent niche-aud numbers.
Puppyish suburban Toronto teen Cliff (Andre Noble) celebrates his 18th birthday — though he looks more like 14 — with his open-minded yet perennially stressed mom Madge (Marnie McPhail) and 10-year-old sis Cookie (Haylee Wanstall). Underwhelmed by the gifts proffered, as well as by life in general, he sulks until the alarmingly precocious Cookie reveals her “real” presents: Vodka, a joint, plus orders to ride his new skateboard downtown and lose the virginity that’s been oppressing him.
Cliff promptly finds himself hanging out with male hustlers and spends a wild birthday night doing everything but. Not that he hasn’t found an object of desire: Jaded bisexual twenty-something Butch (Brendan Fehr).
The attraction seems to be mutual, but Butch seems to have trouble with emotional intimacy, not to mention viewing sex as anything but a “gay-for-pay” cash commodity. Nonetheless, the duo spends the next morning sleeping (platonically) together in Butch’s apartment, which features a cornucopia of professional fetish gear.
Their friendship is blissful until Butch decides to take Cliff’s virginity after all — albeit in the most humiliating, painful way, before a paying client. This act severs communication between the duo, renewed only when Butch begins calling Cliff in desperate, stoned stupors.
Despite tale’s harsh aspects and eventual tragic turn, “Sugar” maintains an almost whimsical tenor that reflects Cliff’s innocently accepting walk-on-the-wide-side perspective. Humor ripples through situations that might normally risk distastefulness (which does afflict one tiny strand involving middle-aged pederasts), lending them an absurdist edge. The few straightforwardly grueling sequences lose no potency as a result of their contrasting tenor.
Two leads are excellent, breathing full ambivalent life into what might have been stock Naif/Midnight Cowboy roles. Able support cast is filled out by Sarah Polley as an oddly maternal (and literally pregnant) drug supplier, plus Maury Chaykin (who appeared in “Me”) as a spankaholic client of Butch’s.
Script by Palmer, Todd Klinck and Jaie Laplante is pared to the essential, without a wasted moment; editorial pace follows suit, yet always seems to catch the right telling detail. John Westheuser’s vid lensing is willfully no-frills, underlining story’s more brute realities.