I was interested in seeing Sugar for a few reasons. Knowing that the folks behind it are the same filmmaking duo that gave us Half Nelson, I was pretty sure this wouldn't be an ordinary, feel-good sports movie. And the focus of the story only further intrigued me: Minor-league training camps in the Dominican Republic that churn out baseball players with the efficiency (and emotional investment) of a factory.
This baseball premise is a pretty ingenious way to portray the immigrant experience in America. Few things are more all-American than this long-held pastime, and it's not hard to draw parallels between the triumph of a home run (or striking someone out) and achieving one's dreams in the land of the free. That's why it's so gut-wrenching when a young man, full of optimism and athletic potential, is shipped off to America only to find that the shimmery promise of baseball is complicated at best and pure myth at worst. To see what else is unique about this intelligent movie, read more.
The movie follows 19-year-old Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a talented pitcher training at an American-run baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. On the field and in the locker room, Sugar and his buddies display the same macho swagger you'd expect from their American counterparts, but it's evident from the get-go that being good at this game is more than just a goal for Sugar — it's a survival imperative. The filmmakers take their time unraveling what's on the line for Sugar and his friends with long, silent shots of the the players' pensive faces and tense conversations with family members back in town. Dialogue is sparse in this movie; instead, the expressiveness of Perez Soto's gloriously handsome face gives the whole thing its meditative feel.
Sugar gets word he's been chosen to go to America, and after training in Arizona he moves on to Bridgetown, Iowa where the elderly Helen and Earl Higgins house him. The entire Higgins family, including pretty, teenage granddaughter Anne are passionate about two things: The town's single-A baseball games and Jesus Christ. And though this may sound like a kind of stereotype, the movie handles it wisely. Each character is wonderfully filled out and complicated. And yet, even with new characters introduced, the young (and if we're honest here, totally hot) Perez Soto has the weight of the film on his shoulders and he carries it marvelously, effortlessly portraying the ups and downs that Sugar endures.
We're taken along on Sugar's journey: His feelings of being culturally isolated, his loneliness, his desperate drive to succeed and, most crushingly, his discovery of what happens when an athlete's body simply reaches its limits. Most young baseball players probably experience this dark reality, but it's worse for Sugar because now he feels truly expendable — to his team, to the family that took him in and to America. Near the end, Sugar confronts a future in this country that is bleak and daunting. Whether he prevails or not is this movie's version of the nail-biting extra inning.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics