By now the cliches of the traditional sports movie are so ingrained in our consciousness that when coming upon something like Sugar, an extremely thoughtful new film from Half Nelson writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, your first reaction might be puzzlement. Heres a baseball picture that could hardly be less interested in the false drama of ninth-inning strikeouts, and theres not a heroic home run to be found within the entire two hours.
The filmmakers also have admirably little patience for that icky, golden-hued Americas pastime sanctimony that too often torpedoes big-screen depictions of the sport. Sugar sees baseball not as a tradition, nor as a religion, but as a business. Its also an escape route.
Its a way out for Miguel Sugar Santos, played here with quiet reserve by newcomer Algenis Perez Soto. Hes a promising young pitching prospect from the Dominican Republic, recruited by the fictional Kansas City Knights and shepherded into Minor League Baseballs gargantuan, coldly impersonal farm team system. But as soon as Sugar and his teammates arrive to play some A-ball in a sports-crazy Iowa town, the film reveals its true subject: what it feels like to be a stranger in America.
With his English limited to playing field terminology, Sugar gazes wide-eyed at this odd, foreign land, packed with exceedingly polite Midwesternersall of whom seem to know way too much about baseball. Boarding with an elderly grandma (Ann Whitney) who enjoys offering extensive postgame critiques, our newest starter for the Bridgetown Swing anxiously navigates his way through church youth group meetings and awkward family dinners.
Cinematographer Andrij Parekh shoots mostly hand-held, almost exclusively with telephoto lenses. The unsteadiness of the image suits Sugars wobbly dislocation, with the shallow depth of field making a neat visual match for his limited understanding of these bizarre new surroundings.
Paced like a baseball game, Sugar tenses up and then relaxes at unexpected moments. The day-to-day grind of professional sports takes its toll, with extended road trips and inevitable slumps throwing buckets of cold water on childhood visions of glory. He might have been a superstar in his village back home, but over here Sugar is just another number.
In what amounts to heresy for an American sports picture, the climax hinges not on the outcome of a big game, but on a personal choice that most might find perplexing.
Boden and Fleck pulled a similar genre feat of deconstruction in their previous effort, Half Nelson, which upended that moldy old inspirational teacher formula by making Ryan Goslings classroom hero a burnt-out idealist with a nasty crack habit. But where that 2006 film surged with the anything-goes energy of Goslings galvanizing turn, Sugar adopts the more distanced rhythms of its passive protagonist. Sotos performance is fine and dignified, easy to admire but difficult to get too excited about. The same might be said for the movie.
Running time: 2 hours
Nominated: Independence Spirit Award, Best Screenplay; Sundance Grand Jury Prize, General Drama.
Consultants on the film: World Series MVP Jose Rijo; Junior Naboa, asst. GM/director of Latin American operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Official website: sonyclassics.com/sugar
Ive known Anna Boden for years and have met Ryan Fleck a handful of times. These are nice, tremendously talented folks with cinematic sensibilities refined far beyond their years. But sometimes Sugar struck me as perhaps just a little bit too nice and maybe a touch too refined for its own good. Its novel to see a film without villains, but as much as I enjoyed the dignity and respect granted to every supporting player, however brief their screen-time, such an even-tempered approach does sap a bit from the dramatic oomph department. (Theres not a character in this movie that you wouldnt invite into your home for dinner. It must be nice to live in a world without assholes.)
Of course, calling a movie too humane isnt really all that much of a complaint, and perhaps the lack of emotional extremity suits the films subject matter. Sugar is about professional athletes bound not for glory, nor even infamybut somewhere in the Minor League middle, where dreams must answer to reality.