Riding with Sugar is an important coming-of-age drama, journeying with a refugee much like an African version of Oliver Twist. It’s actually much more than a drama… blending an array of genres including: sport, crime, comedy, romance and even a touch of thriller. The umbrella to this multitude of genres is a state of magic realism like August Rush, trading a guitar in for a bike. Our gifted hero Joshua is a young refugee who’s haunted by atrocities from his homeland yet driven by a quest for identity, safety, happiness and love. Once a scholarship student, he pursues his dream of going pro with his BMX until a twist of fate intervenes…
There’s so much to admire and appreciate in writer-director Sunu Gonera’s Riding with Sugar. It’s easily one of the coolest films to come out of Africa, powered by important themes and is accessible enough to be entertaining. Grappling with the plight of refugees and the real threat of xenophobia, this is a deeply personal yet inspiring film for Africa with universal application. Backing the “Africa is a country” sentiment and breaking down barriers in the process, Riding with Sugar has an emotive quality, encouraging you to journey with and root for the tragic BMX wunderkind.
Riding with Sugar has been exquisitely filmed, capturing neon city lights and iconic aerial views of picturesque Cape Town. You’ll recognise locations from across the Mother City and some may even surprise you at how they’ve been reframed. Reflectors sparkle as young Joshua races through the streets creating eye-popping visuals against a rich tapestry of warm colours and modern sounds. Vibrant and energetic this visual elegance and a quickfire edit powers the coolness factor making Riding with Sugar worthy of the Instagram generation. Another highlight is the catchy and pulsating soundtrack, which reinforces the explosion of creativity to give the entire film a sleek music video quality.
Playing a determined, stoic and defiant young man is Charles Mnene, a seasoned British actor with a surprisingly long list of TV and film credits. Playing a Zimbabwean teenager and orphan, he’s got fighting spirit and elevates the production through a powerful lead performance. The film features some priceless close ups of Mnene where every aspect synchronises magically to create a visual poetry. Mnene is supported by Hakeem Kae-Kazim, who adds charm and magnitude as Mambo, a Fagin type character with pimp pizzaz. Simona Brown plays opposite Mnene as romantic interest, Olivia, showcasing her brimming talents with a character offering some strong contrasts.
“We’re King and Queen of the world…”
The intensity of the brief flashbacks inform and add depth to Joshua yet there’s a struggle to find balance. Riding with Sugar could have gone full tilt into the drama or leaned into the budding underdog sports story, yet tries to do everything! Checking boxes in terms of entertainment value, it’s difficult to fault Riding with Sugar‘s push to wow audiences. While the audiovisual experience is first-class, the storytelling isn’t quite as polished, struggling mostly with the character of Mambo. Loosely based on Oliver Twist, the visual storytelling is strong enough to flip through the film like a graphic novel without losing the gist of the story. Unfortunately, some contrived turns, thin characterisation and a slap-on resolution spoil the overall effect.
Riding with Sugar will resonate with and impress viewers, but is scattershot in its effort to try and be everything to everyone. The dazzling audio-visual experience warrants your attention, the performances are spirited, the African Oliver Twist dynamic has verve and the substantial themes are so relevant that it’s easy to immerse yourself in Joshua’s world. While Riding with Sugar has some heavy-handed moments when it comes to character and storytelling, it overcomes many of these wrong turns with pure energy and sleek style. It’s not without some bumps, but you’ll be glad you took the ride.
The bottom line: Slick