Movie Review: A deep dive into Sugar Baby Life — “Sugar Daddy”

I was sold on “Sugar Daddy” thanks to one scene screenwriter-star Kelly McCormack made certain to include.

She plays a singer and musician struggling in “The Big City,” not making rent or getting anywhere until she signs up for online arm-candy work. She becomes a “sugar baby” to wealthy men who want someone attractive to go to dinner, the symphony or other public events with.

And the scene in question is the Big Debate over what gawky, naive and self-absorbed “artist” Darren is doing. Her platonic-and-unhappy-about-that roommate (Ishan Davé) has just outed her to her “free-thinking, super open friends.” And Darren is put OUT.

“Why do you do it?” is not something this artsy ditz has given serious thought to. Her stammering “It’s just DINNER” and “I don’t have to wonder what I’m worth” leaves the way open for snipes about “women as property” and “setting back women fifty years,” sparking her own snappish comebacks to a judgmental “friend” who is mooching off a “trust fund baby” and guys who don’t like the idea of their girlfriends “dating” other men for money.

It’s a brilliant, brittle and heated exchange over the transactional nature of sex and the pleasure of one’s company, the double standards women face and yet often embrace and how there’s no way any woman would put up with this behavior from a man.

“It’s NOT the same exchange rate!”

“Sugar Daddy” is a mature, artful and disturbing peek into being “open minded” about something that borders on “sex work,” and sometimes crosses that border. That one scene opens the whole men/women/dating and sexual imbalance of power and control can of worms. And it’s fascinating, like the film itself.

McCormack, of “A Simple Favor,” Netflix’s “Ginny & Georgia” and a lot of Canadian TV, has created a big girl for her to play, and plays the hell out of her. “Big girl” isn’t a compliment. Darren is childishly unpolished, a talented soprano with perfect pitch and the ability to pick up any instrument in a flash. She gropes around with song ideas, trying to figure out a niche, experimenting with video, performance art, the works.

But there aren’t any decent jobs for 25 year-old music major dropouts in Toronto. She’s careless about her appearance and about her latest catering waitress gig, stuffing her face with leftovers when Chef Dan isn’t looking. She’s fired of course.

Not to worry. She’ll just get roomie Peter to “carry” her another month. La di dah.

The one thing she picked up on from that last gig was the idea of “sugar daddy” work from one of the dolled-up escorts. She hits a website, and next thing we know she’s in a shop picking out evening wear, designer day dresses and the like with much-older Jim (Nicholas Campbell) laying down ground rules.

He loves this local symphony, which he lavishes his wealth on. He may drive an ’80s Chrysler and dress like an off-duty butcher, but he is loaded. Can she go to a symphony and “act like you’re paying attention?” We wonder the same thing.

Darren, going by “Dee,” finds herself immersed in a world of fine dining, fine art and money. She is trading on her beauty and her youth, and little else. She has the table manners of a trucker, the vocabulary of a longshoreman and the sophistication of a “Pretty Woman.” She’s about as at home in elbow-length gloves as a Cub Scout.

Even her best “Daddy Date” customer (Colm Feore, dry, frosty and yet fragile) is slightly taken-aback by how gauche his “starving artist” is. But business is business.

“It’s important to assert your value when you’re selling an intangible quality,” he says. Supply is limited, demand is great and all that.

This is a very interesting time for “sugar babies” to be “having a moment.” “Shiva Baby” and “Sugar Daddy” are quite different films, save for their approach to the “gig” their heroines share. Women created these films, they’re not judging these characters and they kind of dare the viewer to do otherwise.

We must be “woke” we must we must.

Both films’ heroines are young, selfish and vile, in many ways. Darren is so far into her head that she can’t even answer obvious questions like “What kind of music do you play?” Meeting a real record label chief (Amanda Brugel) — who is worldwise and just might see some of herself in this lost woman who is plainly just a “big girl” — has little value to Darren.

“Is this how you really dress? Is this you? I won’t be the only one to ask you this.”

She’s into her music but disinterested in everything else — slovenly, impulsive, neglecting her divorced mother and younger sister (Hilary McCormack). She’d be despicable if she wasn’t so plainly lost. McCormack doesn’t shy from making Darren raw, attractive enough but company so dull and rude as to make you cringe.

Video and TV director Wendy Morgan’s feature debut is based on a script that doesn’t have this “exploitation/exploited” thing figured out any more than her heroine does. As Darren stumbles about, looking for an end and grasping at an unsavory means of getting herself there, “Sugar Daddy” invites us to ask hard questions about how this transaction is any different from the scores of ones every woman faces, in any corner of the world and in any profession on any given day.

How is acting, where actresses like McCormack are constantly asked to appear nude and in sex scenes, that far removed from taking cash for “It’s just dinner?”

MPA Rating: unrated, sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Kelly McCormack, Colm Feore, Amanda Brugel, Hilary McCormack and Ishan Davé

Credits: Directed by Wendy Morgan, script by Kelly McCormack. A Blue Fox release.

Running time: 1:40

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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