Sugar Mountain‘s core premise is decent enough. Faced with repossession of their dead mother’s fishing boat (due to a Harvard concert pianist losing a couple of fingers after slipping on the deck), brothers Liam and Miles (Shane Coffey and Drew Roy), together with Miles’ girlfriend Lauren (Haley Webb) cook up a missing person hoax.
Here’s the plan: cocky and confident Miles will get into a staged bar fight with the quieter Liam over Lauren. The next day the brothers will go for a hike on the titular Sugar Mountain to try and clear the air, but get into a ‘fight’ midway up. Miles storms off into the wilderness and when he doesn’t return, Liam to raises the alarm in town. With Aron Ralston (of 127 Hours fame) firmly on their minds, they foresee a media storm that they’ll milk to the fullest when Miles ‘miraculously’ returns a fortnight later, having actually spent his time in the wilderness hiding in a well supplied cave. Simple, right?
Unfortunately, reality soon gets in the way, foreseen by Liam sensibly pointing out that Miles has “no survival skills and no sense of direction” and adding “you’ll get lost and die.” On top of that, Liam actually has the hots for Lauren, they’re being pressured for money by a towering, sadistic lunk (Jason Momoa), Lauren’s dad is the extremely suspicious Chief of Police (Cary Elwes in a stupid floppy haircut), there’s secret gambling debts to contend with and, oh yeah, Miles isn’t fake-lost, he’s lost-lost.
The core idea of Liam and Lauren struggling to corral a media circus, manipulating a search party, fending off police suspicions, worrying about Miles and dealing with their own feelings for each other makes for decent drama. The best scenes of the film come as we sense their growing guilt at exploiting their town’s goodwill, despite unconvincingly telling each other that their fraud is “bringing people together.” As family and friends become injured in the search for Miles, the tension ratchets up as the pair realize they’re in over their heads.
Sadly, writer Abe Pogos and director Richard Gray quickly skate over this promising premise and end up mired in melodramatic twists and B-movie cliche. Characters begin acting like morons, doing things like loudly yelling “the whole thing is fake!” at each other seconds after the police chief leaves the room, or having bizarre spiritual awakenings that come and go at the behest of the screenwriter.
Worst of all, the film’s primary source of tension (what’s happening to the offscreen Miles) is totally punctured by Gray cold-opening the film with shots of him passing out on a snowy peak. If this were excised, audience imaginations could run wild, making the eventual revelation of what actually happened to him less of a damp squib.
These problems are compounded by a largely inexperienced cast who fail to sell their character’s internal lives. Best of the bunch is Drew Roy, who plays a believable asshole skating perilously close to his limitations. Unfortunately, Shane Coffey and Haley Webb, who shoulder the lion’s share of the drama, simply don’t have much going on. They should be empathic; forcing the audience to feel some of their guilt and lust, but they’re just blank ciphers. Perhaps it’s a case of them just not being good enough actors to carry this plot, or perhaps it’s iffy direction. Either way, they simply don’t work.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention future Aquaman Jason Momoa though. He’s clearly realized he’s in a bad movie and hams it up big time. The single most entertaining moment in the film is when he’s roughing up the hapless Liam in a police cell. We’re supposed to be disgusted by his raw sadism, but he’s having such a good time (and honestly, Liam totally deserves this) that we just can’t hold it against him.
While there are moments to enjoy in Sugar Mountain, they simply don’t come often enough and by the end, you’ll find yourself struggling to care what happens to any of the characters here.
Sugar Mountain isn't total rubbish. There's some decent outdoor photography that captures the loneliness of the Alaskan wilderness and the skeleton of the plot is intriguing enough. But narratively, it's all over the place and hamstrung by iffy lead performances.