A film review by Craig J. Koban July 14, 2009

Rank:  #9

SUGAR jjjj

2009, R, 114 mins.

 

Sugar: Algenis Perez Soto / Jorge: Rayniel Rufino / Johnson: Andre Holland / Helen: Ann Whitney / Earl: Richard Bull

Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

 

In English and Spanish with English subtitles.

If there were one thing that I can positively attribute to filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck then it would be that they don't consider dull and prosaic Hollywood formulas their cup of tea.  Not by a long shot.

What they do – and do with such a calm and swift authority and patience – is to grab a hold of dime-a-dozen genres and cheerfully thrown out their play books in a masterfully bit of bait and switch.  They lead you into their films making viewers think that they will fall along predictable and clichéd paths, but instead let them travel down a narrative trajectory that few will see coming.   

Just consider their previous film, HALF NELSON, a film that I very proudly placed on my TEN BEST FILMS of 2006 that is perfectly indicative of their sublime aesthetic choices for telling routine stories with an off-kilter and unique prerogative.  The film certainly had the façade of the types of witless, monotonous and unadventurous inner city high school melodramas that we have all seen before: You know, the inspirational high school teacher - hated by his peers, but with a heart of gold and the noblest of intentions - that turns his ragtag group of misfit and failing students into honors scholars.  Yet, Boden and Fleck were crafty and cunning enough in that film to rigidly turn those all-too-familiar elements upside down and radically revamped them.  Their teacher was not a square-jawed man of decency and wholesomeness (he was a self-destructive crackhead) and the settings and relationships contained within the film were anything but conformist to the Hollywood agenda.  It portrayed dilapidated Brooklyn neighborhoods and schools with a level of gritty and grungy veracity that seemed like it belonged in a documentary.   

The pair takes this same sort of rebellious, insightful, and liberating sensibility to their new film, SUGAR, which – like HALF NELSON – has the veneer of a standard rags-to-riches underdog sports melodrama.  Yet, Boden and Fleck treat the film’s sport in question, baseball, with the same sort of inquisitive and compelling eye that they treated inner city schoolteachers.  Clearly, they have no real desire to make a painfully habitual “sports” film.  Yes, SUGAR has a protagonist that is down-on-his luck at the beginning, has to start at the bottom of his chosen profession, achieve some sort of quick success, and then is faced with a serious of emotional obstacles that impede his journey towards the top of the professional ladder: all of these elements are here. 

However, there is rarely a single moment in SUGAR where the game takes center stage.  I would hasten to label the film as a baseball-centric work because the sport ultimately does not fare heavily into the tone and mood of the film.  The sport is almost a secondary aspect to the spiritual journey of its characters.  In Boden and Flecks’ minds, it does not matter what the score is, how many times the protagonist wins or loses, or – heaven forbid – whether or not he’ll be triumphant in the big, climatic, third act "game of his life.”  They do not have the time to squander on such meaningless non-sense: they are more preoccupied with telling a story of a young man struggling to live his life and make tough choices in a foreign environment that he does not fully understand. 

The most intrinsically fascinating anchor to SUGAR is that it harnesses its baseball story with that of immigration as well as how the majors hire and recruit players.  According to my research Dominicans account for over ten per cent of all Major League baseball players, which is considerably more sizeable than it reads.  The Dominican houses baseball academies that churns out scores of determined and faithful prospects yearly that have hopes of Big League success and fulfillment.  One thing that SUGAR does with such a incredibly observant eye is realistically portraying how the Majors engage in and manage these training facilities: it’s a new and involving world that I hardly knew existed.  Players live a disciplined athletic lifestyle, instructed by coaches and watched over by security guards, and are given room and board with enforced curfews, but they are still given chances to have some fun.   In short, it’s a baseball camp, but unlike the ones we all may be familiar with. 

After we get this initial setup we are introduced to the title character, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (played in an astonishingly natural and sincere performance by new-comer Algenis Perez Soto) who has maintained a lifelong dream of making it big in America and someday pitching atop of a mound at Yankee Stadium.  His practical existence barely hints at such lofty aspirations: he and his family live if devastating poverty in San Pedro de Macoris where hopes of fame and fortune seem lofty at best.  However, Sugar is blessed with a unreservedly powerful throwing arm (he has a killer corkscrew pitch), which may have led to his nickname, seeing as his friends think his pitches are so sweet, but the name also seems to have been attributed to him because (a) of his baby-faced congeniality and (b) because he eats more for desert than he does the main course.   

At 19-years of age Sugar is playing within the Dominican baseball academy and is starting to get some serious attention from coaches and scouts.  With such much-needed aid of an American pitching coach, Sugar learns the art of precision (not to mention getting even more of a deceptive drop on his curve ball) and he ultimately gets word of a big chance to start in the American minor league system.  Yes, it isn’t the majors, but to Sugar and his destitute mother, it’s a chance at paradise.  He and some of his b-ball friends then take a long journey to a land that just as well be Mars to them: Of course, I am talking about the bucolic vistas of Iowa where he boards with a very congenial and shockingly baseball literate family while he attempts to score huge playing single-A baseball.  Despite the fact that they family treats Sugar like one of their own (as well as giving him pointers to improve his game…which he listens to) and that baseball is a game that transcends borders, Sugar is a outsider, barely speaking English, barely understanding America customs, and very, very far from the home he loves.  He does achieve come minor successes early on, but when his game becomes more self-loathingly inconsistent, Sugar begins to question whether the American dream of pitching in the house that Babe Ruth built is what he truly wants. 

The brilliance of SUGAR is how Boden and Fleck have a journalistic eye for detail when it comes to portraying the main character's journey to the states, and they tell his story with tenderness, a raw honesty, and a sympathetic compassion.  The freshest angle to the film is that it presents an enormously realistic portrait of immigrant life in America, a trait that has utterly beleaguered other recent films with semi-similar themes, like the atrociously wrongheaded CROSSING OVER.  The most involving and moving aspect here is how Boden and Fleck are so sharp-eyed and perceptive with portraying the complex emotional uncertainties and challenges that immigrants face when coming to a strange country.  Ravaged by chronic homesickness and suffering from an inability to speak their native language and interact successfully with others, SUGAR gives us a incredibly intimate look inside the immigrant’s mindset of making the brave and sometimes frightening leap of faith to abandon their native land for a chance of success elsewhere.   

The film is littered with individual moments of genuineness not seen in other genre films: We see Sugar and his other hopefuls ordering French toast everyday because of their inability to say what they want to order (these moments are followed by an exceptionally heartfelt scene one day when the waitress teaches Sugar how to order eggs by showing how they look when prepared); we also see the boys navigate through local retail stores and at one point become fixated on the tag of a t-shirt that says "Made in the Dominican", which instantly allows Sugar’s memories of home to flood in; we also witness other more amusing moments, like when the boys discover the alluring – albeit inordinacy expensive -  pleasure of ordering PPV porno films at the motel.  At one point Sugar’s buddy informs him that if he wants to look at flesh that he should get a magazine: they’re cheaper than PPV. 

Again, Boden and Fleck’s real motives are not to condescend viewers with clichés we’ve been forced to sit through countless times before.  Baseball itself is a decidedly smaller entity to the larger story of Sugar trying to acclimatize himself to American customs, some of which he understands, many of which he may never.  The one thing I really loved was how the filmmaking couple don’t resort to mindless caricaturing of either the immigrants or the Americans they are surrounded by.  Sugar and his posse of baseball-loving BFFs are have an aura of normalcy about them, despite their foreign tongues (the crack wise and speak vulgarly, like nice clothes, really like girls, and feverously enjoy their sport) and the Yanks around them display a refreshing level of compassion and understanding for their plight.  I appreciated how the coaches of the single-A team Sugar plays for are not one-note racist a-holes that exist to make Sugar’s attempts to rise to the top a hopeless endeavor.  They hardly care about race at all, only winning games, and when they dispatch guidance to Sugar its of the meaningful variety.   

And then there is the elderly retired farm couple that tend to Sugar’s every need, played by Richard Bull and Ann Whitney, who lead an aggressively evangelical lifestyle that is perhaps only equaled by their compulsion towards baseball.  They also have a pretty granddaughter (played by Ellary Porterfield), that is equally religious and serves as a sort of beautiful emblem of what Sugar wants in America.  The most beautifully understated element of the film is the attraction between Sugar and this girl: they both like each other despite their cultural barriers and it seems clear that she would like Sugar to be a a part of her and her friends’ evangelical work, but Boden and Fleck are intelligent enough to not let the relationship fester to silly, ham-invested levels.  The real temptation by lesser filmmakers would have been to make the daughter and her grandparents odious, Bible-thumping zealots, but the filmmakers craft them as hearty, hospitable, and caring individuals. 

I have not spoken much about the game of baseball as portrayed in SUGAR, but perhaps that’s not required, seeing as the film never overtly concerns itself with it either.  I would never feel the need to spoil what happens in the story after Sugar’s struggles on the pitcher’s mound, only to say that where his personal journey heads is anything but expected.   SUGAR is a rags-to-riches sports drama, but by the time the film reached a conclusion, you gained a sweeping sensation that Boden and Fleck were going for an unconventional denouement: There is a "big" game at the end, but the particulars and score don’t matter and are not revealed, and Sugar has reached a point where he has achieved a level of enlightenment and achievement, but just not in the way that the trite and convenient Hollywood assembly line would have allowed.  

More crucially, SUGAR reminds more discerning viewers of how a person’s lifelong goals and aspirations in athletics can shape their fate in the real world, and in largely unforeseen ways.  Of course, SUGAR is a baseball film, per se, but not of the larger-than-life myth-making proportions of THE NATURAL, or of the fantastical realm of FIELD OF DREAMS, or of the humorous edge of BULL DURHAM.  No, SUGAR throws curveballs at viewers by always being one step ahead of them, which is a dubiously tough job for a modern sports film.  Thankfully, the unpretentious Boden and Fleck are soulful and considerate enough filmmakers to see that the material in SUGAR is more significant than the shallow trivialities that typically dominate these types of films, like who hits the home run and wins the “big game” game in the end.  You will likely not find a more penetratingly truthful, rewarding, forthright, and sweeter drama all year. 

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