EDITORS’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival
No one-hit wonders, “Half Nelson” writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have created another stunning, subtle achievement with “Sugar,” a deeply resonant story about a Dominican baseball talent recruited for America’s minor leagues. If “Half Nelson” showed off the duo’s skillful attention to character, verite camerawork and progressive politics in their native Brooklyn, “Sugar” proves they are just as adept working on a wider canvas, away from home.
“Sugar” is Miguel Santos, a rising star pitcher playing at an American baseball-training academy in the Dominican Republic. Trained not just in the ways of the sport, but English lessons (“foul ball”; “I got it, I got it”) and the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Sugar enjoys fame and attention in his village, but he is also replaceable: There are hundreds of other young hopefuls just like him looking to fulfill their dreams in America.
Sugar eventually makes his way to a Single-A farm team in Bridgetown, IA. In one of many humorous moments about the immigrant experience, Sugar asks, “Where is ‘Ia'”? There’s also a brief running gag: the only thing he knows how to order in a restaurant is French Toast. But these lighter moments belie a deeper more disturbing sense of dislocation, which is most strikingly revealed in a bravura long-take shot mid-way through the film. Accompanied by a hint of otherworldly soundtrack, the camera follows Sugar as he walks through the alien territory of an indoor entertainment center, its flickering lights, videogame machines and bowling alley are one big isolating blur.
But ever the humanists, Boden and Fleck never condescend to this Iowa heartland, with its overwhelming devotion to baseball and God. Careful to avoid stereotypes, Sugar’s burly tobacco-chewing Iowa coach isn’t some brutish ball-breaker, but also shows a sensitive side. And there’s a tentative flirtation between Sugar and an evangelical white girl, which says more about Sugar’s awkward relationship to America than providing any love-interest cliche.
Indeed, the film’s drama is never overstated; Boden and Fleck prefer quiet moments of introspection and psychological change rather than any outward breakdowns or breakthroughs. This makes “Sugar” just as smart and sensitively played as “Half Nelson,” if not more so with its totally unexpected and intelligent third act. In a storytelling move that is as bold as it is believable, Fleck and Boden get to have their baseball movie–with its suspenseful scenes of Sugar on the mound, trying to pick the right pitch to strike out the opposing batters–and subvert it, too.
As Sugar, first-time actor and amateur baseball player Algenis Perez Soto delivers a fine performance, but his likeable presence is just as important here as his acting talent. He’s no Ryan Gosling, but that’s the point. He is one of many invisible immigrants, initially co-opted by America’s favorite national pastime, only to be tossed out and quickly forgotten once again. Like the sequences in “Half Nelson,” where kids recite history lessons directly to the camera, “Sugar” improves upon the device with a brief, but brilliant little coda that beautifully illustrates the reality of Sugar’s story. With these affectionate documentary-like glimpses and a heartfelt commitment to their subject matter, Boden and Flick give “Sugar” just the right amount of sweetness to help its sobering message go down.