We’d like to think the idea for "Sugar" sprung from the place the film
ends, at a baseball game in a field in New York filled with players
who’d first been brought to the U.S. to play minor league ball. Miguel
"Sugar" Santos is one of them, and "Sugar" is the story of how he gets
there from his start a a promising pitcher with a wicked curve ball in
a farm league in the Dominican Republic who’s plucked out to play on a
Class A team in Bridgetown, IA.
"Sugar" is the second film from the "Half Nelson" team of Anna Boden
and Ryan Fleck, and it’s a resplendent fuck-you to overwrought sophomore
expectations: it has a cast of mostly unknowns, much of it’s in
Spanish, and it is, unapologetically, a baseball movie, albeit one
about the dingier parts of the pro game that don’t often make it to
screen. Not even romance gets romanticized in film as much as baseball,
but "Sugar" is adamantly naturalistic, using its main character’s
journey to brush on themes of race and globalism with the lightest of
touches. Sugar begins the cocky king of a small world, heading back to
his home town on visits where he’s greeted like a celebrity by the
local kids and repeatedly queried on his chances of getting to America
by his family and girlfriend. When he does finally make it, he finds
that there are many more rungs to the ladder, and that while imported
players have become team mainstays, they don’t necessarily move up as
easily as others. Placed, exchange student-fashion, with a local family, Sugar
learns to navigate his new world, sending money home to the Dominican Republic, figuring out
how to order something other than French toast â€” the lone menu item he
knows how to say in English â€” at the local diner, and mistaking his host family’s pretty teenager daughter’s attempts to bring him into her church group for a flirtation. He also starts to realize that he may not actually make it into the big leagues. The mantra of baseball being "just a game" is repeated by characters as a consolation or a source of calm, but "Sugar" is an admonition that it’s certainly not, that it’s also a unbounded dream of success for oneself and one’s family, a means of unglamorous livelihood and an unfeeling business.
Boden and Fleck have now made two subdued, socially engaged, humanist films that belie their youth and that are stippled with moments of intense incidental beauty. The rare missteps in "Sugar" â€” mainly music related, like a "the Shins with change your life" bit with TV on the Radio and another with Jeff Buckley’s "Hallelujah," the soundtrack overuse of which tends to knock us out of any film or show â€” come as a bit of a relief, a reminder that they’re not yet Brooklyn’s secular answer to the Dardennes. But who to say? They’ve got plenty of time.
"Sugar" will be released by HBO Films.
+ "Sugar" (Sundance)