Like Anna Boden's and Ryan Fleck's first film, Half Nelson, Sugar delves into well-worn Hollywood melodrama and re-emerges with something wonderfully, quietly unique.
On paper, Nelson's tale of a crack-addicted inner city schoolteacher who finds salvation through a young student appeared contrived, but Boden and Fleck approached the subject with an intelligent combination of aesthetic sensibilities--a dispassionate eye for details gave it a documentary-like realism that was countered by a pop romanticism most evident in the film's soundtrack.
Similarly, Sugar combines docudrama convention with an emotive technical sensibility to take on two genres usually noted for their mawkishness: the fish-out-of-water immigrant story and the baseball film. Instead of succumbing to the histrionics common in sports fiction, Boden and Fleck (who wrote and directed together) chronicle the journey of Dominican player Miguel "Sugar" Santos with a narrative through-line that eschews big dramatic gestures in favor of small, moving moments.
Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto), nicknamed either for his sweet knuckleball or his penchant for sweets, is first shown at a training camp in the Dominican Republic. He and his peers train to play with the hopes of advancing to the American minor leagues. The concept of the majors is little but a far-off dream for these poverty-stricken teenagers, but AAA seems within arm's reach.
The details of his village's struggle are not dwelled upon; brief shots of Sugar's mother working in a sweat shop imply the living conditions, but the family-minded, deeply religious people seem happy, if not necessarily comfortable. Boden and Fleck, New Yorkers who wrote the script based on thorough research, resist the easy condescension of outsiders' empathy and instead focus on the ties of friendship, family and cultural tradition that Sugar is uprooted from when he is selected for spring training in Arizona.
Once in Arizona, the young pitcher impresses enough to be recruited straight the Single A, and soon he's in Iowa, pitching for the Quad City Swing and living with an elderly farm couple.
The couple has a granddaughter (Ellary Porterfield) who invites Sugar to her weekly youth Bible studies. Sugar attends because he's attracted to her, but stops when she doesn't respond to his advances. He befriends his teammates, some who are from Latin America like him. Every so often, an inferior player is traded or let go. This uncertainty troubles Sugar and makes his pitching inconsistent, and the mounting pressure eventually threatens to derail his career.
The key to the film's success is that it's not really about baseball. The filmmakers certainly know the ins and outs of the sport and the process of foreign recruitment, but the meat of the story is found in Sugar's coming-of-age. He's a teenager given an extraordinary opportunity that requires him to leave home before he's ready. The weight of responsibility on his shoulders is made more heavy by his isolation--he's a foreigner in a foreign land, ordering French toast at diners because it's the only dish that doesn't lead to trickier questions ("scrambled or sunny-side up?") that the language barrier makes impossible to answer. This kind of small moment is what Boden and Fleck focus on--there is little suspense or drama to be gleaned from the baseball itself, though Sugar certainly has it's share of Big Victory/Defeat moments.
The story goes to unexpected places, and the third act takes Sugar to New York in a way that most viewers won't foresee. Some might call it anti-climactic, but Boden and Fleck are filmmakers who always go for something more meaningful than cheap catharsis. With Sugar, they've again succeeded.
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