Most baseball movies have a familiar, pleasing shape: The players — a colorful and motley bunch, no doubt — are introduced and come together to form a team. Ups-and-downs dot the season, intertwined with moments of personal drama, camaraderie, or locker-room shenanigans, culminating in a big game or series.
Sugar, a new baseball filmed with an unlikely pedigree, doesn't work like that. The film was created by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the same writing/directing team behind Half Nelson, the terrific 2006 indie flick that starred Ryan Gosling as a high school teacher with a drug problem. Sugar is similarly realistic, moody, and focused on a few months in the life of somewhat troubled protagonist.
In this case, the subject is Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a 20-year-old amateur carpenter and live-armed pitcher in the Dominican Republic who, two years prior to the film's opening, had signed a cheap development contract with the (fictional) Kansas City Knights of the U.S. major leagues. Miguel alternates his time between his colorful, ramshackle home, where he's a hero on the block for his connection to organized baseball, and the Knights' Dominican training school, where Miguel and teammates hone their craft on gleaming grass fields and learn American lingo in formal classes. English instruction at he academy focuses on such in-game phrases as "ground ball," home run," and "Igotit!Igotit!Igotit!" Not much help when studying the menus of Denny's-style diners in Middle America, Miguel will soon learn.
Not long after a visiting big-league instructor shows Miguel the basics of a "knuckle-curve," the young prospect masters the pitch and, along with four countrymen, gets the call to spring training in Arizona with the big club. From there, Miguel is assigned to A ball in Bridgetown, Iowa, for his American professional debut, the setting for the bulk of the film.
Though an older countryman is on hand to impart some basic wisdom to the new guys ("Never, never, never drink from the hotel mini-bar. That stuff is really expensive. You want to see titties? There are magazines for that. Don't order the pay-per-view."), in America, Miguel finds himself isolated — by language, culture, and custom. And making it in the minors is about more than just managing problems on the mound, which is difficult enough.
Sugar certainly isn't as insightfully funny as Bull Durham, the gold standard of minor-league movies. But it has a documentary-like realism about the game, on and off the field, that few cinematic representations can match. Its portrait of American baseball's Latin component — personal opportunity or colonialism? — is overdue. (There's a funny bit about the friendly rivalry between Dominican and Venezuelan prospects.) But Sugar doesn't take a fannish approach to the game in the manner of most film depictions of the sport. This is likely to alienate some potential viewers hoping to see a more traditional "baseball movie." Sugar is really an immigrant story played out against a hardball backdrop. Here, the game is just a job and a vehicle for personal development. Sugar's story is bigger than baseball.
Opening Friday, May 29th