Sugar John Palmer

It is distressing that a genre as underused as the gay teen romance can still remain as repetitive and formulaic as its heterosexual counterpart. Themes of acceptance (both of yourself and of homosexuality in general) dominate the basic boy/girl comes out, meets boy/girl, loses boy/girl scenario. Sugar, an independent Canadian film (is there such thing as a non-independent Canadian film?), certainly touches on these genre conventions, but overall falls far from its cliché-ridden predecessors. Directed by John Palmer and adapted from short stories by Bruce La Bruce, Sugar follows Toronto teen Cliff (an endearing Andre Noble) who on his 18th birthday follows his Ritalin-popping little sister's advice to "go get sex." Though his evening proves unsuccessful in that respect, Cliff does manage to befriend a street hustler named Butch (Roswell's Brendan Fehr). They quickly become close and Butch introduces Cliff to a world that starkly contrasts his suburban existence.

Cliff is obviously headed for trouble, but the film works hard to avoid becoming a cautionary tale. Sugar plays down the melodrama, in that AIDS is barely mentioned, the acceptance from Cliff's family is almost assumed and the excessive drug use is hardly condemned (though it's not glamorised either). And while at times it becomes unclear whether certain events are displayed merely for shock value (some scenes border on soft-core pornography), it is clear that Sugar does an exceptional job at humanising characters that rarely receive this treatment (Sarah Polley and Maury Chaykin, in cameo roles, manage to make a pregnant Valium addict and a dirty old man quite likable). Though in the end it's somewhat confusing as to what Sugar is actually trying to say, its realistic and unsentimental portrayal of gay youth sets it apart from its cinematic counterparts. (Th!nk)