by George Sax
It’s a standard reviewer’s ploy: Tell the readers they don’t have to know much about the ballet or string theory or sheep herding or collateralized debt obligations, you name it. This movie, the reviewer asserts, transcends its nominal and superficial subject to draw audiences in with its human drama.
This actually holds true for Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar to a substantial extent. You don’t really have to know a lot about baseball to remain interested in its portrayal of a Dominican baseball hopeful and his attempts to make it into the American major leagues. It’s also probably true that those who bring some understanding of the game to the film will have at least a slight initial advantage over those who don’t. But this also probably won’t be crucial. Sugar immerses the viewer in some of baseball’s less public and attractive aspects, and it also provides some adept, if conventional, views of the game as it’s commonly played.
Miguel Santos (Algenes Perez Soto, a previously inexperienced actor)—nicknamed Sugar—is introduced undergoing the rigors and regimens of a baseball training camp in the Dominican Republic run by the fictitious Kansas City Knights. He and the other trainees live a fairly regimented, pressurized existence. Their days are filled with coaching, game drills, and rote-learning instruction in English sentences and catchphrases.
There’s one sadly humorous early scene in which the boys escape from their barracks one night to drink and bid farewell to a trainee who’s being sent down. They start singing a jocular, shaky rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” then lapse into an uncomfortable, meditative silence. (This note will be struck again in the movie.) Their situation vaguely recalls young men preparing for war on an armed forces base.
Fleck and Boden, a married couple, fluidly, sympathetically, and pointedly depict the sometimes desperate aspirations of Miguel and his fellows, for whom baseball is much more than a game they excel at and love. It represents a hoped-for vehicle of escape from poverty and isolation.
The narrative core of the film follows in deceptively unadorned style Miguel’s stateside experiences in the major league’s farm system, first in Arizona, then in Iowa, where he boards with an elderly couple and tries to come up to snuff on a double-A team. There are cultural and language difficulties, and a fair amount of focus on baseball, particularly of the behind-the-scenes variety that is a staple of sports movies.
But if Sugar superficially follows that format, the film concentrates on the title character. Its calm observations of his quiet but emotionally disruptive striving are more persuasive than most generic efforts, probably in large measure because of the absence of artificial intensity.
And yet, Sugar isn’t really a baseball movie. As it transpires, in its surprising, affecting third act, it’s a coming-to-America movie. Even as the filmmakers provide a feeling-infused turn of events, their picture’s persuasiveness may seem to suffer at least a little. In their previous feature, Half Nelson, they strained against the claims of realism to present the plight of a gifted but miserably conflicted high school teacher. Sugar is more restrained, but its appealing interplay of hope and regret isn’t quite successful.
In the film’s first shot, we look down on a playing field against a luminously golden-hued sky. (The sharp, often lyrical photography by Andrij Parekh is a real asset.) This shot has a kind of final response in the last, long take of seated ballplayers whose animated conversations can’t be heard.
It’s a tribute to Boden and Fleck’s skills and insights that their film’s vision is as involving as it is, despite some soft-pedaling of common existential challenges.
Watch the trailer for Sugar
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