A screening of Sugar should become compulsory for all young men contemplating the transition from school-yard beat-offs to full-service drug and hustling lifestyles. This cliché-lite film boldly examines the behind-the-scenes escapades of an out-of-control sex-trade master and only misses the mark of excellence when the leads slip out of character. But that’s to be expected given the fact that the script has four writing credits including source material from a number of Bruce La Bruce’s short stories.
The production works best when its characters are silent, leaving John Westheuser’s knowing camera and Robert Kennedy’s seamless editing to bring to life the telling sequences. Two standouts: Butch (Brendan Fehr whose skill at selling sex comes across stronger than his drug dependency) gives a truly moving lay to his obese client (so overweight that hydraulics must be enlisted to help her “assume the position”). His fingers caress the ample flesh with a sensitivity that many of the buff and beautiful set can only dream of receiving. As he drives her to climax, Butch seems genuinely into his own release even while she screams with satisfaction during those expensive moments of physical intimacy that must have drained her disability pension as much as their emotions.
Later, suburbanite Cliff (André Noble, whose luscious brown-saucer pupils and totally engaging smile should keep him on the screen for years to come), who falls for Butch while celebrating his 18th birthday in Toronto’s rent-a-boy district, is dragged along to a trick-pad where his cherry is lost to satiate the viewing fetish of the customer (“Don’t worry, I just like to watch”) rather than consummate the virgin’s first love. This uncomfortable scene is captured with discretion (unlike the extended rape in Irreversible) and an eerie believability of the darker side of the “business.”
In fact, if things ended here as Cliff, violated to his inner being, gave up on Butch and accepted the date from his high school chum to the Prom there would have been a brief but commendable addition to important gay-themed film catalogue.
However, since stories had to be told Cliff breaks his resolve and heads back for another helping of hopeless love. This is where Director John Palmer failed to step in and, at least, smarten up the dialogue. As Madge (Cliff’s mother, Marnie McPhail) shares a mutually consoling joint with her teetering son we learn that “The home is all there is sometimes”; then when the reunion falls apart during a failed attempt for a blow job by the now the lesion-covered trickster (perhaps the knife play put his sometime lover out of the mood) Cliff is forced to mutter “If I could help you I would,” for his farewell.
Soon after Butch fades to black, his body isn’t even cold before Cliff, in a coffee shop with his Ritalin-addicted younger sister Cookie (served up with savvy by Haylee Wanstall), proceeds to the men’s room for a “second-stall-on-the-right” encounter with “Killer”—a.k.a. Mr. Right Now. Their interruption by a startled patron was the perfect metaphor for the viewer who could well conclude that Cliff has learned nothing and will soon be with his ex at that big bath house in the sky.
Finally, special mention must be made of Maury Chaykin’s fabulous portrayal of S&M queen, Stanley—particularly the scene where he washes dishes hoping that to be thoroughly whipped if his master notices any bits of errant food. Delicious!