Sugar (R)

Drama 114 April 3, 2009
By Ernest Hardy
The subject of teen homelessness has fascinated feature and documentary filmmakers alike for several decades now, and the two camps have settled into shared narrative boilerplate when tackling the issue: a motley crew of kids forms a makeshift family to compensate for severed blood ties; the especially innocent youngster for whom the others look out; a death that throws everything into chaos. Director Rotimi Rainwater hews close to formula in his well-intentioned treatise about the title character (played by Shenae Grimes), a tough-talking teen living on the streets of Hollywood, functioning variously as girlfriend, mother figure, and big sister for members of her crew, who panhandle and shoplift to survive. (The sole acknowledgment of the sex work many homeless kids fall into is a jokey bit about the group's lothario targeting lonely chicks to bone for nighttime shelter.) Smoking pot, skateboarding, and hanging out to pass the time, the multiculti group is the filthy flipside of those old Benetton ads. Rainwater navigates the clichés with gritty cinematography and plumbs the tension between the stress of daily survival and the freedoms of the outcast. Sugar's nightmares and flashbacks hint at the tragedy that led to her homelessness even as she and her friends stonewall the outreach volunteer and the nun (the latter played by an underused Nastassja Kinski) who try to help. Our heroine's voiceover, heard as she writes in a journal, does too much of the narrative heavy-lifting (and philosophizing), while many in the young cast convey their characters through showily affected alienation. But the film (doused with a soundtrack of generic indie rock and punk) slowly becomes compelling, stirring empathy for the characters even if the ending doesn't quite pack the punch intended.
Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck Richard Bull, Michael Gaston, Ellary Porterfield, Karl Bury, Jaime Tirelli, Ann Whitney, Andre Holland, Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Eddie Martinez Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck Paul S. Mezey, Jeremy Kipp Walker, Jamie Patricof Sony Classics

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