Friday, 27 November 2020

Riding with Sugar (Movie Review)

One of the downsides of Netflix having such a massive library of films is the sheer amount of bottom-of-the-barrel offerings viewers need to wade through to get to the good stuff. But every now and then, a gem pops up out of the muck, shining brighter than everything else around it. I'm talking about films like last year's The Irishman and Marriage Story, or The Trial of the Chicago 7 just a few weeks back. Well, we can add another one to that growing list of gems. 

Set in the slums of Cape Town, South Africa, the movie follows a Zimbabwean refugee named Joshua (Charles Mnene), who harbors dreams of becoming a professional BMX racer. But after he is involved in a hit-and-run accident just weeks before a major competition, those dreams come to a screeching halt as he is told he might never be able to ride again.

Broken in both body and spirit, Joshua is haunted by visions of the horrors of the past life he has tried so eagerly to get away from. But when he is taken in by a professor named Mambo (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), who runs a makeshift orphanage for young refugees, he slowly regains a sense of hope and belonging, as they work together to get his life back on track.

Things start to get complicated though, after Joshua meets and falls in love with a girl named Olivia (Simona Brown). Aside from the distraction that she could pose, he also has to deal with the fact that she is from a totally different world than his. Except things in his world are not as they seem, and he'll soon have to decide how far he is willing to go to protect what he cares about the most. 

There's plenty to love about Riding with Sugar. First off, the movie is beautifully shot and tightly edited, weaving surrealist imagery into its narrative so effortlessly that it was never anything short of breathtaking to look at. Much like City of God or Slumdog Millionaire before it, the movie paints a vivid picture of life in a shanty town, and this was accomplished using some of the best cinematography I've seen in an African production.

And that mastery extended to its sound mixing, which also helped to create that heightened sense of immersion the filmmakers were going for. Maybe it was because I had seen the movie with headphones on, but I really appreciated how the mix complimented the visuals, as it should. And while on the subject of sound, its soundtrack was filled with an eclectic mix of South African music, including one of my personal favorites, kwaito. 

Then there was of course the top-tier acting done by its three principal actors. Hakeem Kae-Kazim is no stranger to big productions, having starred in films like Hotel Rwanda, so it should come as no surprise that he gave the best performance in the movie. His acting was restrained and nuanced when it needed to be, and scenery-chewing when the material called for it. 

Likewise, Charles Mnene and Simona Brown did great as the star-crossed lovers. It was easy to buy into their romance, which was well developed over the course of the movie, so that by the time the tough decisions needed to be made, no suspension of disbelief was required. If only other movies with romantic subplots would adhere to this one rule. But, oh well. 

And all that high praise does not mean that the film didn't have any issues worth touching upon. The movie tended to go a bit overboard with its surrealist imagery. There were several flashbacks to the war-torn homeland of our protagonist, as well as xenophobic riots in South Africa, which were events that helped shape his worldview. But there are only so many flaming tires rolling down a dusty street you could look at before the whole thing starts to feel old. It is hard to complain about such nitpicks though, when everything else was as well executed as it was.

In case you haven't guessed it already, Riding with Sugar earns an easy recommendation from me. The movie delivered on all its early promises, while still managing to spring a few surprises along the way. I hear that the filmmakers had spent several years developing it, and I've got to say that it shows.

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