By Mack Chico
Rated: R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
Release Date: 2009-04-03
Starring: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Official Website: http://www.sonyclassics.com/sugar/
Sugar is about being a stranger in a strange land, when the strange land is America. It’s about the point where ambition falters and reality kicks in. And it’s about baseball – in that order. The established fantasy of the sports movie is confronted with some pretty harsh facts here, about the tiny minority of players both good enough and lucky enough to make it professionally. That customary certainty that all will come good, that the crowd will roar and the music will swell at the bottom of the ninth inning, is anything but a given.
Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck pulled off something similar with their first film, the teacher-student drama Half Nelson, by loading it with a subtler freight than that particular genre is usually asked to carry.
They are becoming a distinctive team and a valuable one – their stories have clout, their style is lean and forceful. They borrow a formula and adapt it into something real.
We have certainly seen the journey of “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) before, or journeys like it: he is a star pitcher in the Dominican Republic, given the chance to join an American training academy for a shot at major-league success. He sends money back home to his family, while impressing the selectors enough to be installed as a fixture in minor-league Kansas City. Sugar’s time there has its ups and downs – a knee injury at the worst possible time, a flirtation with performance-enhancing drugs. As he’s told at the start, there are hundreds of players above him who have already proved themselves, and hundreds below – many of them Dominicans – jostling for a chance to take his place.
There are clichés strewn in this this film’s path like unexploded landmines, but weaving their way past them isn’t Boden and Fleck’s only achievement. They dig away honestly at the relationship between effort and success, one that most movies distort in one direction or the other. To try, to fail, to try some more: this never feels like a pre-determined tract about the struggles of a homesick immigrant, and Sugar, winningly played by the complete newcomer Soto, isn’t a cut-out ingenu but a testy, competitive, driven but fallible person. The road he follows is modest, but the film is beautiful and searching in letting him find it for himself.