It’s Darren’s (Kelly McCormack) second foray into the “paid dating” scene and her experience is already drastically different than the first. That one had her going dress shopping with an older gentleman treating her to the clothes for her trouble. This one is at a fancy restaurant with a man (Colm Feore’s Gordon) who seems to know someone at every table on the way to hers. Where the first came with an inherent awkwardness from both parties, Gordon is nothing but confident in what this situation is and who else knows it. Is it enough for Darren to drop her guard? Not initially. The more he provokes her to take control of their date being that she’s the in-demand commodity, however, the more she willingly complies.
Director Wendy Morgan and McCormack (who wrote the screenplay) ensure we know the power dynamic at play as well as how it can shift on a dime. Would Darren have complied if not for Gordon’s push? Maybe. Maybe not. All bets are off the moment he dares her to set her worth after already paying the agreed-upon fee, though. That’s when she orders three dishes with hot sauce and loosens up enough to enjoy the moment so thoroughly that she can’t hold back from cursing about the burger’s quality. And hearing Gordon’s reply, “There she is.” only empowers her further. Because despite the exchange of money, this is a man who wants to know her. He’s not paying to make her into what he prefers.
So while we go into Sugar Daddy assuming the title concerns Gordon, the film quickly engages with the idea McCormack lays out in her writer’s statement: that everything is “sugar daddy.” Because let’s think about it. Gordon pays Darren for a pre-determined service (to be attractive company at dinner). Does that make him a “sugar daddy”? Or does that make him an employer? Is there a difference? This feeds into a great scene around halfway through that expands on the nuances of Darren’s job amongst friends who both defend her choice and denigrate it as prostitution (don’t worry, the patriarchal idea that prostitution is inherently a pejorative is also unpacked). Why should waitressing be considered better if its implicit sexualization isn’t agreed upon at the start?
Because that’s what Darren did before this “dating” site. She catered for a chef who uses his staff as eye candy. And it’s not as though that or this is her career aspiration either. She’s a musician who moved to the city to pursue her dream only to discover the number of part-time jobs necessary to pay rent guarantees no time to actually afford that pursuit. So let’s add some more examples of sexism to the mix courtesy of her being a starving artist. There’s the male roommate (Ishan Davé’s Peter) who can’t stop himself from believing that being a good friend somehow justifies a shot at a relationship. There’s the assumption that seeing her somewhere fancy means she’s “with someone.” And the list goes on.
McCormack doesn’t hold back on those examples whether her character is the victim or the perpetrator. Because what does Darren eventually do upon being introduced to a woman (Amanda Brugel’s Nancy) in the music business? She gives the man by her side eye contact when talking and later wonders if Nancy knows when her male subordinate is going to give a follow-up call. It’s that duality and complexity to a society that had literally been built upon misogyny that many stories of this ilk shy from fully unleashing in order to conform to that same set of rules. McCormack and Morgan aren’t interested in sanitizing the messiness that goes into a woman accepting herself outside the men’s world she was born into. It’s why finding financing took years.
It’s also why Sugar Daddy is so uniquely good too, though. They’ve put an honest, coarse, and authentic human being on-screen who’s breaking through the façade she didn’t even know she was helping to cultivate. It doesn’t matter if you agree with her decisions or if you even like her. You simply have to understand her reasons and the anger that rises when others refuse. Darren is everything mainstream movie watchers love in a complicated male character, but as a woman. And the filmmakers provide the nuance necessary to explain why she is how she is through a “female gaze” in order to dismantle the fact that everyone has been treating her like a “paid date” her entire life without having the decency to admit it—including herself.
That goes creatively (Nancy at one point tells her she’s talented, but too afraid to go beyond her training to find her individual voice), emotionally (issues at home have her rejecting her mother’s love for the idea that the father who abandoned her was some heroic figure of inspiration), and sexually (between Gordon suppling a physical embodiment for her “daddy issues” and Aaron Ashmore’s Angus lying about his worth as a record producer to score women, no one can be trusted). So while I said Gordon isn’t the reason for the title, I didn’t say he isn’t also part of the problem once his genuine kindness and support finds itself wrapped up in a reality that becomes much messier than he perhaps intended. Or did he?
How Darren confronts these truths and reconciles her place in the lives of those she thought understood her and those she pushed away becomes a reckoning she endures to escape twenty-five years of a transactional existence she didn’t ask for. It’s only when she does ask that the invisible strings society indoctrinated her into believing didn’t exist come into focus. Is she wholly innocent? No. Should she reject the time and money she’s received as a result of her actions? No. Our pasts are something to learn from, not erase. Who Darren is at the end of this film is therefore a commencement. The person she let herself become in the eyes of the world isn’t gone. She’s finally been acknowledged in order for Darren to become herself.
Sugar Daddy hits VOD/Digital HD on April 6 and select theaters on April 9.