Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the writer/director team behind 2006’s wonderful and haunting Half Nelson, succeed again with Sugar, the story of a talented baseball player from the Dominican Republic striving to break into professional baseball in the United States. Algenis Perez Soto, whom Fleck and Boden discovered at a ballfield in the Dominican Republic, makes a stellar debut as the title character, moody and charismatic pitcher Miguel “Sugar” Santos. The film introduces Miguel as he absorbs lessons about both baseball and U.S. culture at a baseball camp in his home country, a player factory for a professional team in the United States. Locally well-known and respected, Miguel is seen by his impoverished family and girlfriend as a preternaturally gifted savior, a baseball savant with the talent to gain access for all of them to a new life through the riches that await players in the majors. Soon enough, Miguel’s blazing fastball and wicked curve garner him a ticket to the U.S., where he shows substantial promise and earns a roster spot with a low-level minor league team in rural Iowa.
Once in Iowa, Miguel’s isolation and limited grasp of English foster a sense of unmoored displacement. Placed with a welcoming local family to help him navigate a foreign land, Miguel tries to assimilate as best he can, and camaraderie with fellow itinerant ballplayers provides some relief. Likewise, a tentative romance with a local girl provides some respite from his loneliness, though it also contributes to the sense of distance from his old life, where unfortunate economic circumstances were offset by the comforting patchwork quilt of loving support and admiration. When an injury and a slump in his game interfere with his progress on the ballfield, Miguel receives an eye-opening reminder that professional baseball is first and foremost a business. With the sudden reduction in his value to his benefactors come changes in status, leading Miguel to question his commitment to his avocation and to take an abrupt change in direction that places his future in doubt.
At times, particularly in the middle of the film as Miguel moves uncomfortably through his alien surroundings, Sugar feels a bit aimless and lumpy, as the narrative haltingly stutters through Miguel’s ups and downs. While this aspect occasionally bogs down the film a bit, ultimately it contributes to Fleck and Boden’s realization of their protagonist’s journey by distancing their film from the cleaner but more formulaic template of most movies about up-and-coming sports prodigies. Indeed, as Sugar propels its titular character toward the continental divide of his life, the film deviates sharply from the typical sports movie arc, a welcome relief that eschews cliché and keeps the second half of the film fresh and full of surprises. At the same time, as Sugar veers into a jarring change in circumstances for Miguel, Fleck and Boden turn a potentially frustrating flaw into a strength as the viewer virtually experiences the cultural displacement afflicting Miguel.
In their short filmography, Fleck and Boden’s special talent appears to be their ability to present complex character dynamics in a stark, spare narrative structure, both allowing the viewer to see clearly the characters’ essential qualities while at the same time capturing the shades of grey coloring virtually all human relationships. The filmmakers’ depiction of Miguel’s life in the D.R. provides a telling example of this skill, as Miguel feels pressure, both internally and externally imposed, over a family and girlfriend who have hitched their wagon to his star, for better or worse. His network of family and friends genuinely love him; at the same time, there is a constant calculation woven into their lives of the odds and impact of his financial success. This theme continues throughout the film, unobtrusively but repeatedly rewarding the viewer with intricate moments of insight, as when Miguel begins staying with a local family in Iowa. A lesser film would look to score cheap points by contrasting Miguel’s ethnic background with his hosts’ whitebread ways. Instead, Fleck and Boden subtly build hard-earned, authentic drama by positing a situation where Miguel’s hosts, avid fans of their local baseball team, welcome the latest potential star with genuine goodwill, while at the same time viewing Miguel as something of a commodity.
Relationships in Fleck and Boden’s world are authentically and believably complicated, and the filmmakers show the ability to fully realize those ideas in spare films that neither require a facile happy ending to satisfy nor a contrived sad ending to explore the profound. In the duo’s most impressive feature, 2006’s Half Nelson, the high school teacher who might be the only chance of rescue for an at-risk youth also happens to have a severe heroin addiction and an unsavory weakness for prostitutes. In Sugar, a promising young man is surrounded by people who genuinely care about him to greater and lesser degrees; nearly all of them also want something from him for themselves. They’re neither uniformly good nor completely selfish; they’re simply the protagonists of their own storylines, with Miguel a minor character in those stories who can supply the means to propel them forward.
Sugar also avoids an easy pitfall for this type of movie: the anti-establishment screed simplistically relying on the exploitation of a distressed minority for dramatic ammunition. Certainly, there are soul-crushingly sad moments in Sugar, and the plight of the lead character is likely common among the legions of baseball players imported from the Dominican Republican: churned through the system in an unceremonious, sink-or-swim environment that takes no account of the massive reorientation required to transition from the economic depression of their poor homeland to the foreign, unforgiving streets of the land of their hopes. Yet Sugar acknowledges that this machinery, and to a larger extent this country, chews up its underclasses largely without regard to ethnicity or background, though the stakes are higher for some. As in Half Nelson, Fleck and Boden provide another insightful story that captures the way white and black people interact in ways originally grounded in race but evolving over time to an interplay of cultures, economies, and worldviews.
With all the foregoing substance, Fleck and Boden still find time to offer up yet another subtle and overarching theme, though this one bides its time and waits to sneak up on the viewer until well into the film. Miguel ultimately must face philosophical questions that dog many, maybe even most people: What is the price of insisting on doing what you love for the right reasons; the cost of not letting your life’s work be corrupted by the expectations or limitations placed on you by others? What is the value of an individual’s talent when that talent proves to carry not only blessings but also the curse of clear insight into the nature of those around us? In examining this challenging idea in all its hues of human motivation, Sugar provides a worthy companion piece to the flip side of that coin, Half Nelson, which examined a seemingly hopeless man trying to claw his way up the other end of that conceptual spectrum, trying to save himself from a loveless world through underappreciated work that makes him feel whole. Sugar asks whether Miguel can meet his counterpart at an acceptable medium and honors the viewer by inviting a genuine consideration of that question.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
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