For about 30 minutes, Sugar Mountain is really good. A wannabe thriller about lifelong friends trying to fool the public with a faux tale of survival while overcoming interpersonal tensions and a very underutilized thug, the latest from Lookalike filmmaker Richard Gray suffers from a criminally contrived plot that replaces good storytelling with forced misdirection. It’s the kind of movie that is maddening to watch because the opportunity to be so much better than it is can be found at nearly every turn.
The story follows two brothers, Miles (Drew Roy) and Liam West (Shane Coffey), who decide to fake a fight for survival in the Alaskan wilderness in order to repay debts and rebuild their family business. Miles believes if he can be considered a missing person for a week or more that he will be able to sell his story to media and possibly even Hollywood, and he needs Liam’s wilderness skills in order to make it happen. Liam doesn’t believe the plan will work, but seeing no other reasonable alternative he begrudgingly agrees to play along.
At the brothers’ side is Lauren Huxley (Haley Webb), daughter of the town sheriff (Cary Elwes) and love interest to Miles. Lauren was once one of the most promising young minds in town whom many believed would go places, but due to her endless love of Miles her feet have never strayed from her zip code. She’s still smarter than she seems, and it’s her creativity that helps to develop the narrative foundation needed to sell the elaborate lie the West brothers plan to carry out.
Sugar Mountain sets all this up in a fine and timely manner, but just as soon as things go haywire for the characters the story itself begins to spin out of control. Liam is blamed for Miles’ disappearance, which was the plan from the very beginning, but in order to protect their lie without getting himself into legal turmoil Miles is forced to think on his feet, further embellishing an already hard-to-maintain story. This, coupled with revelations as to the breadth of Miles’ debts brought to light by the town bad guy (Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa), complicates the narrative to the point of silliness. It’s as if Liam is having the worst week anyone has had in the history of time, and it is given no justification beyond the fact that he shares blood with a less-than-great person.
And I haven’t even mentioned the romantic problems in Liam’s life, which of course include a lifelong crush on his brother’s lover, or his complicated relationship with the lone handicap person in town (portrayed painfully by John Karna). Liam is the unluckiest of the unluckiest, and this is his story told in a way that can almost be summarized by Dante Hicks’ infamous complaint in Kevin Smith’s Clerks: “I’m not even supposed to be here today.”
I did find a kind of twisted joy in just how jolting the narrative wrong turn happens to be in Sugar Mountain. Just as I begin to feel connected to the characters and concerned for their fate the rug is pulled out from under me to reveal the cinematic experience I was partaking in was nowhere near as deep or insightful as I thought it might be. Instead, it’s a basic cable matinee masquerading as an indie thriller with talented performers doing their best to breathe something believable into preposterous material. I have to give credit where it’s due to the writing for pulling that off, but I’m not sure that’s the kind of compliment that will make you want to see this movie.