Brooklyn-based filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have followed up their self-assured 2006 feature debut, Half Nelson, with another success. Their new immigration/baseball drama, Sugar, may be the best American sports movie and the most touching immigration saga of the decade.
As much as North American and Asian populations are enamored with baseball, their enthusiasm hardly compares with the passion found in many Latin American countries, where the game referred to as “beisbol” has inspired legions of obsessed young ballplayers and spectators. In Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, baseball and soccer are the only games in town. Twenty-nine of the 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) franchises now run developmental “academies” in the Dominican Republic and other baseball-rich Latin countries to mine talent from the region. Almost three out of every 10 MLB players hails from a Latin American country.
With Sugar, Fleck and Boden plumb the depths of this world and deliver a lovely sophomore effort, a film that is as much about loneliness as it is about our national pastime. Non-professional actor Algenis Perez Soto plays the title character, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a gifted young pitcher from the Dominican Republic who is discovered and plucked for a chance at baseball stardom. He leaves his family and girlfriend to play Double A ball in the Kansas City Knights’ system and struggles as much with self-doubt and solitude as he does with keeping his breaking ball down.
As they did with young Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson, Fleck and Boden have elicited an authentic and heart-rending portrayal from a first-time actor. Soto’s expressive face reveals the contours of the modern-day immigrant experience. It’s a performance that is full of both comedic and melancholic moments of dislocation and misunderstanding, such as when Sugar insists on ordering French toast at an Iowa diner for meal after meal, because it’s the only food he can name in English.
Fleck and Boden’s slick dolly moves, whip pans, and rack focus shot openings are a departure in style from the handheld cameras moves and dim frames of Half Nelson. As the film’s plot moves from the Dominican Republic to Iowa to New York City, the style gently mirrors Sugar’s emotional journey, moving from the warm and colorful palette and loose style of the Dominican sequences to the more rigid compositions of Iowa baseball fields.
As the film’s focus expands, Sugar’s experiences reveal not only the labors of bright-eyed young ballplayers striving for their slice of the American Dream, but also those of all immigrants who struggle to adjust to our language and customs – and the harsh realities of American life on the margins.
Fleck and Boden bring to life an array of fascinating characters, including the elderly couple who houses Sugar in their Iowa farmhouse; the churchgoing young blonde whom he begins to fancy; and the hotshot, Stanford-educated, first-round pick whom he befriends. It is these people who provide a testament to the filmmakers’ roving eye for specifics and their hunger for a small story, grandly told. Particularly good is former Cincinnati Reds pitcher José Rijo as the cigar-smoking Dominican scout who discovers Sugar’s prowess, and Michael Gaston as his no-nonsense minor league manager.
A film that baseball fans – demoralized by the steroid era (which the film touches on) – will find helps restore their passion for this most elegant and cerebral of games, Sugar will also enthrall anyone who is fascinated by the endurance (and the underside) of America’s ideals.