MOVIE OF THE WEEK April 2, 2021: SUGAR DADDY

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Stylish and original, director Wendy Morgan’s drama Sugar Daddy is a film that demands your attention. Much like its central character, Darren (Kelly McCormack, who also wrote the screenplay), it’s never gentle, yielding, or meek — rather, it’s bold, complicated, and confident in its artistry. It’s not always easy to watch, but it’s never less than compelling.

Darren’s passion in life is her music, which is as unique as she is; “new age,” “avant garde,” and “experimental” are all terms that come to mind to describe it, but it’s not really like any other genre. That makes it all the more challenging for Darren to find a way to turn it into it a commercial success, so she scrapes by working at a catering company … until she gets fired. Desperate to find a way to pay rent and buy food, Darren decides to sign up for an online dating/escort service that pairs young women with older men for dinner and (non-sexual) companionship.

The money is good, and Darren even forges a genuine connection with one of her clients, the wealthy Gordon (Colm Feore), but her friends, including lovelorn roommate Peter (Ishan Dave), are disdainful of her work. One of the movie’s most electric scenes involves a heated debate between Darren and her friends over the intersection of feminism and sexual currency. As in all other matters, Darren refuses to apologize or back down, potentially torching relationships as a result — but she’s not wrong in her self-defense or the conviction of her choices.

Morgan, who makes her feature debut with Sugar Daddy, has a background in directing music videos, and it’s evident here: The scenes in which Darren composes her pieces and performs them are moody, thought-provoking, and carefully styled. And McCormack is fully invested in playing the complex, rewarding part she wrote for herself. Many of Darren’s choices may frustrate viewers, and her bull-in-a-china-shop approach to life leaves wreckage in its wake, but her artistic vision remains uncompromised. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Marilyn Ferdinand “You don’t own me.” Lesley Gore’s anthem to women’s independence came to mind as I watched Sugar Daddy. The main character, Darren (Kelly McCormack), is a musician trying to make it in Toronto and failing badly at virtually everything, from relationships to holding down a catering job. When she is fired and faces eviction, she signs up to be an escort to wealthy older men—no sex involved. While Sugar Daddy is director Wendy Morgan’s feature film debut, the impetus behind the film is McCormack, who co-produced and wrote it, and appears in almost every frame of it. She plays Darren as a troubled rebel who is, frankly, very hard to like. But I admired her untamed spirit and the vexing questions the film poses about how other people stake a claim in one’s life. Do we owe it to our parents, even supportive ones, to stay in their lives? Do we need to respond to someone just because they love us? Can we make a living in ways that other people find anti-feminist or morally questionable? Is selling out the inevitable price of success? Of love? This thought-provoking film is enhanced by the many talents, musical and otherwise, of McCormack and her stellar supporting cast.

Pam Grady: You have to hand it to Sugar Daddy star Kelly McCormack. In writing the film’s sharp screenplay, she was downright brutal in creating her own character, Darren. An aspiring Toronto songwriter and musician, she finds her succession of catering jobs unconducive to pursuing an artistic life, and so signs on with an escort service – the girlfriend experience only, no sex – to earn a bigger payday and free up her time. But rather than spend those extra hours working on her music, she invests it in alienating virtually everyone in her sphere. McCormack is unflinching in playing an entitled piece of work with daddy issues whose petulance, sarcasm, and penchant for torpedoing genuine opportunities make Darren her own worst enemy at the cost of family relationships, friendships, and even the career she so strongly desires. Colm Feore and Nicholas Campbell lend valuable support as two of Darren’s dates, while first-time feature director Wendy Morgan also deserves credit for delivering a tense drama that is a riveting, if squirm-inducing watch.

Susan Wloszczyna: Sometimes, a girl has to do what a girl has to do just to survive and, perhaps, make her dream come true. That is the case with Sugar Daddy’s Darren (Kelly McCormack), a struggling 25-year-old free spirit who aspires to become a musical artist. But her lack of funds forces her to take odd jobs such as a caterer just to make ends meet. After she is fired for sneaking food into her backpack, however, Darren decides to become an escort for older males who just want a female presence when they go out to dinner. Read full review.

Leslie Combemale A strong, complicated character is created and brought to life by writer/lead actor Kelly McCormack in director Wendy Morgan’s first narrative feature Sugar Daddy. It’s the story of young artist Darren, who wades into the murky sexual politics of ‘sugaring,’ young women getting paid to act as arm candy for rich older men. It is a messy road to self discovery, but Darren forges ahead to both her own expansion and compromise. The film is a great example of the power of the feminine gaze, both in front of and behind the camera, as not only does it feature a female lead, it is written, directed, edited, lensed, and scored by women. The score by Montreal composer Marie-Hélène L Délorme, also known by the moniker Foxtrott, has a huge impact on the tone of the film. The scenes where Darren repeatedly wrecks herself are excruciating but all too believable.

Nell Minow: In Sugar Daddy, screenwriter/star Kelly McCormack and director Wendy Morgan tell the story of a paid escort that does not objectify or judge the young woman or the men who want to pay for her company. Instead, they let us see the character’s struggles to understand her boundaries and then to maintain them. McCormack’s performance is achingly vulnerable and the filmmaking has an intimate, almost documentary mood.

Sandie Angulo Chen: The last time Kelly McCormack was on screen she played a supporting character on the Canadian-produced Netflix teen drama Ginny & Georgia, which debuted last month. It’s a pleasant surprise to discover that she’s a brilliant writer-producer-musician-and lead actor thanks to the thoughtfully made drama Sugar Daddy. One might think the movie is a stereotypical depiction of a young woman who puts herself through university or early adulthood courtesy of a sex-less (well, mostly) escort gig. But McCormack (who writes and stars) and director Wendy Morgan have so much more to explore in Sugar Daddy than the commodification of young, beautiful women. McCormack’s character Darren is an experimental musician who just wants to write and create music, but after getting fired from a catering job she needs some way to pay the bills. Darren’s not a shy and fragile character; her agency, consent, and sense of self, while evolving, is rooted in her desire to be an artist. McCormack and Morgan courageously don’t worry about whether Darren is stereotypically likable; she’s flawed, confused, and even caustic at times. But that makes the movie the more memorable a character study. It’s a breakout role for McCormack (who has been acting, singing, and performing since she was 7) deserving of notice.

Sherin Nicole There are certain situations that most women will recognize after having been raised in a male-centric culture. For those reasons, I imagine this film will be somewhat triggering for a variety of us. Written by and starring Kelly McCormack and directed by Wendy Morgan, Sugar Daddy is the story of a troubling awakening in a young musician’s life. Darren (McCormack) is an experimental artist who can’t make her music pay off or keep a job. After an acquaintance introduces her to paid dating, she collides with a community that commodifies women on every level…and then she realizes that is the world as it has always been. Told in a mixture of life lessons and dreamscape, Sugar Daddy plays out like a track-by-track commentary by an artist in angst, at the intersection of deferred dreams and existence as a woman. There’s even a setlist of sorts at key points in the film. Sugar Daddy is not always at its peak, but it is relatable enough to hold on to you, in order to learn how this particular talented yet fragile femme might survive.

Jennifer Merin Sugar Daddy is a beautifully crafted film. Director Wendy Morgan, cinematographer Kristin Fieldhouse and editor Christine Armstrong skillfully tell the story through moving images that subtly indicate shifts of mood and intention as they inform the viewer of Darren’s evolving feelings and circumstances. Kelly McCormack’s brave and intimate performance is simply stunning. As writer and actor, she allows Darren’s story to unfold without explanation or apology. Brava! Read full review.

Loren King Darren, the talented but insecure musician in Sugar Daddy, describes herself as a starving artist so often that it isn’t surprising that she’s fired from a catering job for stealing food. The cash-strapped Darren, ably played by the film’s writer Kelly McCormack, resorts to supporting herself and her art by becoming an escort, giving older men “the girlfriend experience” so that she can work on her music though she ends up sabotaging any positive opportunity that comes her way to the point of being an unsympathetic but nevertheless interesting character. She refuses to call her caring mom; rejects her nice guy roommate who declares his feelings for her; doesn’t take the harsh but realistic criticism offered by a no nonsense record producer; and embarrasses the wealthy but kind sugar daddy who has, rather improbably, given her a life changing sum of money. Darren seems to face little danger or degradation as an escort; even a drunken scene in a strip club ends with no great consequence. All her trouble seems of her own making. The debut feature from Canadian director Wendy Morgan, who has helmed music videos, offers some inventive musical sequences. But it’s one in which Darren sings a cappella with her sister that most conveys the magic that music represents for the character.

Cate Marquis In Sugar Daddy, Canadian Wendy Morgan’s first narrative feature film, a talented young woman, Darren (Kelly McCormack, who is also the scriptwriter) moves to the big city to work on her music. She is clearly talented as a singer and skilled at playing many instruments, yet she is exploring unusual music directions, crossing from classical and folk to performance art, and is unable or unwilling to take a gig playing music. She struggles to get by working at a variety of odd jobs including catering. At one job, she encounters a former co-worker now working for a service where she is paid to accompany wealthy men on dates to events, assuring Darren it is only dating and no more. When Darren loses her latest job, she decides to sign up with the same paid dating service. Although her dates seem to be only that, she nonetheless feels uneasy about what she is doing, and when her friends learn what she is doing, she faces harsh assumptions. With women as director, writer, cinematographer and editor, this thought-provoking film presents an exploration, through a feminist lens, of the intersections of love and money in relationships between women and men, in this intriguing, well-acted, music-filled drama.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Sugar Daddy

Director: Wendy Morgan

Release Date: April 6, 2020

Running Time: 98 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Kelly McCormack

Distribution Company: Blue Fox Entertainment

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).