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Sweet Substitute

(AKA Caressed) 1965, Starring Bob Howay, Angela Gann, Lanny Beckman, Carol Pastinsky, Bob Silverman. Directed by Larry Kent.

Larry Kent's follow-up to the brutally fascinating The Bitter Ash is an interesting coming-of-age film that is almost as raw and emotionally compelling as his debut. Sweet Substitute represents a huge technical step forward for Kent, a film that finds the iconoclastic director further butting heads with conventional morality on the subjects of marriage, love and sexuality through the viewpoint of adolescents growing up in Vancouver.

Tom (Bob Howay) and Bill (Lanny Beckman) are sexually-frustrated high school seniors desperate to meet girls. After they decide that the superficial gals in their class are only interested in guys with cars, Tom makes a deal with his parents: if he keeps his grades up and wins a university scholarship, they will buy him some wheels. He hits the books with his study partner, the tomboyish Kathy (Carol Pastinsky), but Tom has difficulty keeping his hormone-charged mind entirely on schoolwork. After several attempts, he finally manages to score a date with Elaine (Angela Gann), an attractive but flighty girl who only agrees to go out with Tom after learning that he has tickets for a television dance program.

As their relationship progresses and things get serious, Elaine drops a bombshell on Tom'she is saving herself for marriage. He pretends to understand, but soon finds himself at a crossroads that eventually leads him back to the streets of Vancouver trolling for girls. But when the bullying Al (Bob Silverman) invites Bob and Tom to a girl's house where they can each "have a turn," the pair's braggadocio gives way to acute fears of inadequacy. Relief only comes when the girl's father arrives home to bust up the party.

With so much attention paid to his sex life, Tom's grades start slipping, and suddenly he is danger of losing the scholarship--his passport to the "ultimate freedom" of car ownership. Things come to a head during a late night cram session with Kathy, when Tom can't keep his pent-up emotions under wraps any longer, and they start to make out. This comes just as Elaine agrees to marry Tom, and Kathy's resulting pregnancy threatens to destroy the lives of everyone involved.

Shot in black and white by The Bitter Ash's DOP Richard Bellamy, Sweet Substitute shares more than just the stark look of Kent's debut. Following the tradition of A Dangerous Age, The Bloody Brood and the other "angry young man" B-films that Canadians had been making since the late 1950s, Sweet Substitute has Kent showing utter disdain for the compatibility of love and marriage. The teens' simultaneous consuming fear and obsession with sex keeps them stumbling blindly toward the barest possibility of female flesh throughout the film, however Tom's impending marriage is seen as little more than a loveless trap. It's not hard to imagine the protagonists of the film growing up into the disaffected, polygamous young adults in The Bitter Ash.

Although the plot here is a much more conventional love triangle, the film's great strength is in its unabashed frankness, that boldly shows teenagers as real people with real desires. Witness the frustrating sequence in which Tom and Bill unsuccessfully cruise for girls on Vancouver street corners in scenes that eerily precede Pete and Joey's own Yonge Street strikeouts nearly a decade later. Likewise, Sweet Substitute pushes the envelope of sexuality established in Kent's debut. Once again, the girls are shown to be wicked temptresses, however with no female viewpoint, this film borders on straight up misogyny and nihilistic self-absorption that culminates in an unbelievably harsh conclusion. It's because of this frankness that the sex in the film is often more startling than out-and-out Canadian exploitation like Have Figure Will Travel and Naked Flame that were also hitting theatres in the early 1960s.

Characteristically, Canadian critics panned the film, and Sweet Substitute only garnered critical attention stateside after Joseph Brenner Associates, a small exploitation distributor based in New York that had handled Lindsay Shonteff's early Canadian anti-western The Hired Gun, picked it up and released the film under the title Caressed. Still, Sweet Substitute remains an intriguing entry in the modern rebirth of Canadian film, that can now be seen as the most accessible, if not the best work, of Larry Kent's early B-films.

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