Sugar (opened April 10 at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas) is a baseball movie in the same way that Eight Men Out was a baseball movie. You cannot conceive of either film without the baseball backdrop but neither film is a formula sports movie in the sense of putting primary importance on the winning or losing of games. The characters in these films are interesting aside form the fact they play baseball. Eight Men Out looked to the Black Sox scandal of 1919 as a means of exploring a loss of innocence in America, and Sugar looks to the young Latino players - in this case specifically a Dominican player - trying to make it in the American major leagues as its means of exploring one man's immigrant experience.
Baseball fans have long enjoyed the skills of such Dominican players as Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guererro. Their success has
also inspired many Dominican kids to dream of MLB fame and success. But for every player that makes it there are dozens that don't. The new film Sugar, from the filmmaking duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who also made Half Nelson), looks to these young Dominican players who try to make the jump from neighborhood sandlots to the big show.
The filmmakers tap a real Dominican sandlot player, Algenis Perez Soto, to play the fictitious 20-year-old Miguel Santos, nicknamed Sugar. Sugar is a promising pitcher in an American baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. After getting a pointer from an American scout, he develops a wicked knuckle curve ball that catches everyone's eye and gets him sent up to an American minor league team in Iowa. Although he may feel comfortable on a baseball diamond, he's lost in Iowa, where no one speaks much Spanish ("no cerveza in casa, no chicas in casa") and it's hard to order a decent meal. It's a big change in other ways as well. Back home, everyone looked up to him and he was a local celebrity of sorts, but in the U.S., he's just one of the pack and there's always
another hungry and eager player nipping at his heels if he starts to slack off. The film follows Sugar's journey from the Dominican Republic to New York, and watches as his dream morphs into something unexpected.
Boden and Fleck were inspired to make the film after they discovered that every Major League team had some sort of training academy in the Dominican Republic. As a baseball fan, Fleck thought this would provide an interesting backdrop for a story about the immigrant experience. The film is at its best when it's capturing the details of Sugar's life. There's a great scene at the baseball academy when the players are learning a very particular kind of English with phrases like "home run," "foul ball," and "I got it." Or the culture shock of arriving at a Midwestern home. In those moments the film conveys the particulars of Sugar's immigrant experience with a fresh sense of detail.
But what Boden and Fleck fail to get is a real feeling for the game and what it means to these players. Do they really love the sport? Is it seen merely as a way out of poverty? Or can it be both? We don't get the sense that baseball has been played and adored in the Dominican Republic for more than a century. It seems like baseball is to Dominicans what hockey is to Canadians, it consumes them and they take great pride in being good at the game. But then maybe this is just a cliché but I can't tell as Boden and Fleck reveal the sport. We don't get a sense of whether Sugar loves the game or is just playing because his family expects him to play, and if his feelings are typical or not of the hundreds of kids who flood these training academies. The film needs more of a context to place Sugar in. Although the film is not intended as a baseball movie, it still needs to convey that world. Boden and Fleck are good at portraying the periphery of that world - the way the business of baseball is conducted - but are less adept at conveying what it feels like to play the game. I was never quite sure how Sugar felt about the sport and only at the very end of the film (which I don't want to spoil) did it hint at what those feelings might be.
But the film does do a nice job of setting itself up as a sports movie and then quietly turning into something else. It becomes a film about a young man finding his place in the world and being satisfied with his choices. Algenis Perez Soto displays an easy grace on the field and an appealing charm on the big screen as Sugar.
Sugar (rated R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use, and is in English and Spanish with English subtitles) hits all the politically correct notes as it sympathizes with a new immigrant as he struggles with culture shock, racism, and language barriers and then throws in the extremely competitive world of professional sports for added color. Sugar is sweet but with a slight saccharine aftertaste.
Companion viewing: Eight Men Out, Major League, Half Nelson