Review: ‘Sugar Daddy’ (2021), starring Kelly McCormack, Colm Feore, Amanda Brugel, Ishan Davé, Aaron Ashmore, Kaniehtiio Horn, Nicholas Campbell and Hilary McCormack

April 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kelly McCormack in “Sugar Daddy” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Sugar Daddy” (2021)

Directed by Wendy Morgan

Culture Representation: Taking place in Toronto, the dramatic film “Sugar Daddy” features a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and one native Mohawk) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 25-year-old woman who’s a struggling musician begins working as an escort to older wealthy men, and she gets more emotionally affected than she thought she would.

Culture Audience: “Sugar Daddy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing realistic and somewhat unconventional portrayals of people caught between desperation and integrity.

Colm Feore and Kelly McCormack in “Sugar Daddy” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Sugar Daddy” isn’t Hollywood’s “Pretty Woman” fantasy of escort work. If people want to take a realistic trip inside the world of an unusual Canadian woman who becomes an escort, then get ready for Kelly McCormack’s tour-de-force performance in “Sugar Daddy.” The movie doesn’t force the usual sleazy stereotypes on viewers, nor does it push the over-used “hooker with a heart of gold” narrative.

Instead, “Sugar Daddy” is a revealing portrait of a 25-year-old aspiring music artist in Toronto who’s struggling not only with her finances but also with maintaining her dignity when the people around her frequently want to take her dignity away from her. The only thing about “Sugar Daddy” that doesn’t ring true is the movie’s title, because this film isn’t really about the men who hire the female protagonist to be their trophy companion. The movie is really about her trying to figure out who she is and what she’s willing to put up with in her life to be comfortable with herself.

McCormack not only stars in this dramatic film but she also wrote the “Sugar Daddy” screenplay, performed several of the soundtrack’s songs, and is one of the producers of the movie. “Sugar Daddy” was artfully directed by Wendy Morgan and has an all-female team of producers. Coincidence or not, it might be why “Sugar Daddy” is so authentic with its female perspective.

There are conversations and scenarios in this film that seem lifted directly from real life. McCormack confirms it in the “Sugar Daddy” production notes, where she says the movie was based on many real-life experiences that she’s had as a struggling artist, except that McCormack says, “I’ve never been paid to go out on a date.” She also comments in the production notes: “Writing this film became an escape hatch and the only clear path I saw before me to transfer the paternal power I gave away to the maternal power I could keep for myself. The process involved a lot of personal heat. I’ve written from happier places, but this was not one of them—it was a flammable excavation.”

In “Sugar Daddy,” McCormack plays the character of Darren Kessler, who has been living in Toronto for about five or six years, after moving to the big city from an unnamed suburb. Like many aspiring artists who make this type of move, she has dreams of being successful and acclaimed for her art. These dreams aren’t necessarily to become rich and famous, although that’s a goal of many wannabe entertainers. Viewers will get the impression that Darren at least wants to become a respected professional who gets paid enough for her art to live comfortably.

However, one of Darren’s biggest creative problems is that she’s still struggling to find her sound and voice as an artist. This confusion of who she is as an artist is demonstrated many times in the movie when Darren has a hard time explaining what type of music she performs when people ask her about her music. It’s shown in the film that she experiments with different sounds.

She’s a talented singer/musician who can perform in various genres. In one scene, she sings opera. In another scene, she sings traditional folk music, a cappella. In another scene, she plays music that can best be described as “noise pop.” However, she’s never shown performing in front of a live audience. It’s implied that Darren doesn’t have the confidence yet to showcase her new music in a live setting in front of a crowd.

Throughout the course of the story, as Darren writes more original songs, she starts to lean more toward doing avant-garde electronica music. Because her music isn’t easily marketable, it’s harder for her to get the record deal that she wants. One of the most true-to-life aspects of “Sugar Daddy” is how up-and-coming female artists in the music business are expected to have some kind of youthful sex appeal to be marketed or to get the attention of producers and executives who can help get them a record deal. It’s a very different experience from male artists, who aren’t as likely to be subjected to the same “sex appeal” standards as female artists.

Darren is a multi-instrumentalist who can’t seem figure out what type of instrument she wants to buy when she can afford to buy it. When she goes into a music store, she tries out keyboards, guitars and drums—none of which she can afford at the time, because like a lot of struggling artists, Darren is financially broke. At one point in the movie, after she starts to make money as an escort, the first instrument she buys is one that the music store owner (played by Brendan Canning) says is is very hard to learn how to play: a pedal steel guitar. That’s an indication of Darren’s personality: If she’s given a challenge, she’s not afraid to take it on.

How did Darren end up as an escort? In the beginning of the movie, Darren is seen working as a food server for a catering company. When she shows up at work one evening for a small, upscale cocktail party, she’s barely gotten there on time and has forgotten to bring nice shoes that complement the geisha-like work dress that she has to wear as her uniform at the party. All she has to wear on her feet are some scruffy athletic shoes. Darren remarks to her friend/co-worker Jenny (played by Kaniehtiio Horn) that she hopes that the party attendees (who seem to be wealthy business people) won’t notice what type of shoes she’s wearing.

In the kitchen during the party, Darren is seeing eating some of the leftover food quickly when people aren’t looking. Later, she sees a party guest named Sarah (played by Michelle Morgan) who used to work for the same catering company. This guest, who is in her late 20s or early 30s, is the date of a man who appears to be in his 60s.

In a private conversation that Darren and Sarah have at the party, Darren asks Sarah if she’s still working in the catering business. Sarah says no and explains that she’s there on a date with the older man. “But we’re not together,” Sarah hastily comments on her relationship to the man. “It’s just for tonight”

Sarah further explains: “It’s like a paid dating thing for rich, older men. It’s still just a ‘stand there and look pretty’ job, but it pays better and it’s a lot less work [than being a food server]. Anyway, it’s putting me through grad school.” Darren is intrigued by what she hears but doesn’t seem too interested in becoming a paid escort. She’ll change her mind when she gets desperate for money.

Toward the end of the party, when Darren sees all the leftover food in the kitchen, she puts a lot of the food in the backpack that she has with her. But just at that moment, her boss Edward (played by Noam Jenkins) walks in and sees the stolen food in the backpack. Based on what the boss says to her, it’s apparently not the first time that Darren has been caught stealing food, so she gets fired.

Darren has a roommate named Peter (played by Ishan Davé), who’s a Ph.D. student in sustainable urban planning. He’s a sensitive intellectual who can sometimes be socially awkward. Soon after losing her job, Darren tells Peter that she got fired and that she won’t be able to pay $200 for the next rent that’s due. (The movie doesn’t detail how Darren and Peter met.)

Peter is understanding but a little frustrated. Based on his reaction, it’s not the first time Darren couldn’t come up with her share of the rent. He makes certain comments throughout the story that make it clear that Darren has a hard time keeping a regular job. Peter gives some words of encouragement and tells Darren that she’ll probably find another job soon.

But she doesn’t. Darren looks for another job, but nothing pans out. And then, as a last resort, she goes to a website called Daddy Date and signs up to be available for hire as an escort. The next thing you know, she’s in a boutique, trying on ball gowns for a man in his late 60s or early 70s named Jim (played by Nicholas Campbell), who wants to buy her some dresses for possible future dates he can have with her. It’s shown in the movie that Darren charges $300 for a typical date.

Jim asks Darren if she would like to go to the opera with him sometime, and she mumbles something about how it depends on how much she’ll get paid for it. Jim is Darren’s first “sugar daddy” client. And he’s not a Hollywood fantasy of being movie-star handsome like Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman.” Jim is overweight, he’s got the type of splotchy face that indicates he’s probably got alcohol/drug abuse issues, and he’s old enough to be Darren’s grandfather.

At first, Jim acts as if he’s just a lonely, harmless guy who wants to be in the company of a younger woman. And at first, Darren is in denial when she thinks that she doesn’t have to do anything sexual on these dates. But, as “Sugar Daddy” realistically shows, when most people who use escort services pay for dates and give their dates gifts, these customers eventually expect to get something sexual out of these dates.

Jim shows signs that he’s not just lonely. He’s also mentally ill. And it should come as no surprise that he tries to lure Darren into situations that make her uncomfortable and could lead to sexual assault. For example, Jim tells Darren that they’re going to the opera on one of their dates. But instead, he drives her to a remote area and tries to get her high on marijuana. What happens after that will determine if Darren will see Jim again or not.

Darren has a more meaningful and emotional connection to another client named Gordon Pierce, a wealthy businessman in his 60s. Her first date with Gordon is at an upscale restaurant. Unlike Jim, Gordon seems genuinely interested in Darren as a person. At first, Darren uses the alias Dee on her escort dates, but over time, she opens up to Gordon enough that she tells him her real name.

Gordon, who is a bachelor who lives alone, eventually tells Darren that he has a daughter who’s around the same age as Darren is. During the first date that Gordon has with Darren, she tells him that she’s a college dropout and an aspiring singer/songwriter/musician . And he gives her this piece of advice that will come back to haunt her: “It’s important to know your value when you’re selling an intangible commodity, but I’m sure you understand that as a starving artist.”

During this dinner conversation, Darren and Gordon find out that they both tend to put their work above any personal relationships. Gordon essentially admits that he’s a workaholic who loves doing business. Darren says that she sometimes becomes so consumed with making music that she often feels as if nothing else matters.

Darren also briefly mentions her relationship history, by telling Gordon that she had a boyfriend who moved to Toronto to be with her. But the relationship didn’t work out because she fell out of love with him. Instead of breaking up with him, Darren says that she decided to become so difficult that he had no choice but to break up with her. And when he left, she says she felt relieved, not sad.

These are examples of how Darren is flawed and messy but also very realistic. She doesn’t have her life figured out, she makes mistakes along the way, and she can be self-centered. It might not be a formulaic Hollywood narrative for an “ingenue,” but neither is real life. During Gordon and Darren’s second date, which takes place at an art gallery, Gordon introduces Darren to his music industry friend Nancy (played by Amanda Brugel), whose interactions with Darren demonstrate assumptions and stereotypes that can be made about people in positions of power.

“Sugar Daddy” doesn’t tell Darren’s story in a smooth, straightforward manner. There are parts of the movie that abruptly skip back and forth, and viewers will have to speculate what happened in the time gaps that aren’t shown on screen. Darren’s family background is explained in this manner, just like a puzzle with pieces that remain missing.

In the beginning of the movie, Darren is seen attending a funeral in her suburban hometown. It’s never explained who died, but it’s implied that it’s a family member because Darren’s younger sister Rae (played by Hilary McCormack) and their mother Kathy (played by Paula Boudreau) are at the funeral. Darren’s parents split up years ago (it’s never specified when), and the divorce is still a painful topic. Kathy and Darren have a prickly relationship with each other.

While at her childhood home, Darren goes into someone’s room and decides to take lot of the vinyl albums that were in the room. Later, it’s revealed that the vinyl albums belonged to her father, who is still alive but estranged from Darren, Rae and Kathy. It’s also revealed that her father left the family and never bothered to pick up the albums from the house.

After the funeral, when Darren is ready to go back to Toronto, Darren’s mother Kathy notices that Darren is taking several of the vinyl albums with her. Kathy isn’t pleased about it, but Darren abruptly cuts off her mother who seems to want to argue about it. Kathy then asks Darren if she needs money, and Darren (who’s broke but too proud to tell her mother) adamantly says no to the offer. And Darren makes an exasperated noise when her mother says, “You can always ask your father for money.”

There’s more tension in the conversation when Kathy tells Darren: “When your sister comes to visit you for reading week, don’t let her get too drunk partying. She still has to study.” Darren snaps at her mother: “Is that what you think I do all the time?” Her mother replies, “I have no idea what you do.”

Back in Toronto, Darren’s roommate Peter knows exactly what she does. And her escort work becomes a problem for him because he’s in love with Darren. Whenever he tries to express his feelings to her, she puts him in the “friend zone.” For example, when Peter tells her that her singing woke him up the night before, she makes an apology.

But then he says while looking at her with a lovesick gaze, “To be honest, I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless I heard you singing.” Darren seems to want to ignore Peter’s obvious infatuation, so instead, she quickly pats him on the head like he’s a dog and says, “Aw, you’re so sweet,” before she walks quickly into her room.

Eventually, Peter’s unrequited feelings for Darren come out in resentful ways. On Darren’s birthday, she celebrates with Peter and a small group of about six other friends who have gathered at Darren and Peter’s apartment for a casual party. But it quickly turns into an angry argument when Peter deliberately mentions that Darren has been making money as an escort.

Darren immediately gets defensive and tells everyone that she doesn’t have sex with the men she gets paid to date. But the opinions in the group vary on whether or not what she does is really just a form of prostitution. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie because it realistically shows how people can have different opinions on what “escorting” really means and how the escorts should be judged. Not surprisingly, the paying clients are usually judged less harshly than the escorts.

The acting and dialogue in this scene are riveting to watch, because there’s also the undercurrent of what started this argument. Peter knew that revealing this information would embarrass Darren, but he did it to hurt her because she doesn’t want a romantic relationship with him. It’s speaks to the power dynamics that often occur when there’s sexual tension between two people and one person feels rejected by the other.

Meanwhile, although Darren wanted to keep her escort work a secret from her friends, once it’s out in the open, she doesn’t shy away from talking about it. It’s easy to see her mindset because she thinks that if she denied that she’s an escort, it would be like admitting that she’s doing something shameful. On the other hand, during this heated debate, she goes out of her way to deny that sexual activity will eventually be part of the expected transaction in this type of work.

And there’s also discussion about “obligation sex” in dating, when someone has sex with a date out of obligation, because of what the other person paid for on the date. And what about someone who has a lover who willingly pays all their bills? Is that a form of prostitution? Some of the people in the group think it is, while others don’t.

“Sugar Daddy” also realistically portrays the blurred lines that can occur when people mix business with sexual pleasure. It’s what happens with Darren and a casual acquaintance of hers named Angus (played by Aaron Ashmore), who’s a music producer. Darren knows that Angus is attracted to her, so there’s that unspoken tightrope that she has to navigate of how she can get Angus to help her without him expecting anything sexual in return.

About a year before this story takes place, Darren had promised Angus that she would give him a demo of her music, but she never did. But now that Darren has been making enough money, she’s been making demos and some provocative music videos in her home studio, so she’s feeling more confident about showcasing herself to possibly get a record deal. But how far will she go to get a record deal?

In her everyday life, Darren prefers to wear casual, baggy clothes. But “Sugar Daddy” subtly shows that it isn’t until Darren displays some sex appeal in her music videos that she begins to get attention for herself as an artist. She wears some of the glamorous dresses that Jim bought for her, and a few times she goes topless. At least one of these videos goes viral. “Sugar Daddy” devotes considerable screen time to showing Darren filming her self-made videos, which are essentially a reflection of Darren’s inner feelings at the time she makes these videos. (“Sugar Daddy” is the feature-film directorial debut of Morgan, who has a background in directing music videos.)

One night, Darren sees Angus at a bar, and he introduces her to an A&R representative named Jeffrey (played by Andy McQueen), who works for a record company called Bristow Records. When Angus tells Andy that Darren is a singer, Jeffrey invites her to a recording studio session that he and Angus are doing with a famous rapper. There’s a possibility that Darren will be asked to do guest vocals on one of the rapper’s songs. Darren is elated and thinks this could be her big break.

What happens in that recording studio is also one of the best scenes in the movie. It shows how women are treated in an environment where misogyny is not only expected, it’s also encouraged. It shows how female artists have to often choose between their integrity or career advancement that might involve doing art that’s degrading to women. And it shows the assumptions that people frequently have about the roles of women and men in the music industry.

It would be a very cliché thing to do to portray Darren as an enlightened feminist who knows exactly who she is and can stand up to people who try to take advantage of her. But the reality is for Darren and a lot of people like her, she often doesn’t think she has the power to say no in a situation where someone tells her to do something that makes her uncomfortable. And what if that person making those demands can also help in her career?

Darren also gets a rude awakening when she finds out that she isn’t as knowledgeable about who the real decision makers are at Bristow Records and the music business in general. She internalizes and sometimes acts out a lot of sexist stereotypes that people might have about women in the entertainment industry. And she finds out the hard way that things don’t always work out the way she wants if she mixes business with sexual pleasure.

Kelly McCormack’s performance as Darren is sometimes raw and sometimes rude, but always realistic. It’s a performance that demonstrates her considerable talents as an actress and singer. There’s a scene where Darren and her sister Rae sing a song over the phone to their mother (it’s mentioned that the sisters used to perform together) that’s a true standout in the movie.

Some parts of the “Sugar Daddy” screenplay could have been less meandering, but whatever minor flaws there are in the screenplay are outshone by the movie’s overall tone and presentation. Some of the dialogue and scenarios sizzle with so much authenticity, it feels like a lot of it happened in real life, but only the names of the people have been changed. The direction is solid, and the other cast members turn in good performances, but this movie wouldn’t work without Kelly McCormack’s unique vision in telling this story.

“Sugar Daddy” is not a movie that’s supposed to make viewers feel good about people who are worshipped just for having money or power. Nor is it a movie that tries to make Darren look like a helpless victim. It’s a movie that takes a very clear-eyed view of what it means to make certain decisions and how those decisions could affect people’s lives.

In “Sugar Daddy,” there are three themes presented as chapters in the story: “Timid,” “Joyous” and “Atrocious.” (“Timid, Joyous, Atrocious” is also the name of one of the movie’s soundtrack songs.) Those three words could describe aspects of Darren’s personality, as well as the way that she tries to become a professional artist. And what “Sugar Daddy” presents so effectively is that as long as there are “haves” and “have nots” in society, people’s attitudes toward money, power and how we value ourselves can indeed be timid, joyous and atrocious.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Sugar Daddy” on digital and VOD on April 6, 2021.

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