April 3, 2009

Sugar: Sweet beisbol film.

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ****

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose first feature Half Nelson garnered acclaim for both them and for lead actor Ryan Gosling, give us an even more narratively successful sophomore effort with the baseball-fish out of water story Sugar.  The film was produced by Paul Mezey, who also produced Maria Full of Grace, a film this at times reminded me of, full of not only grace but thoughtful, empathetic but non-patronizing depictions of people from a culture different than our own.

The story centers around Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a character is sweet as his nickname, but appropriately confident in his abilities to throw the baseball. He's also reserved and as such the script takes its time revealing him to us, which becomes one of the film's pleasures. Sugar is played by newcomer Algenis Perez Soto, who was a ballplayer himself, and has said in press materials that he used the opportunity of getting cast in this movie as a chance to re-live his own failed dreams as a player. In his third year in a Dominican baseball academy run by the fictional Kansas City Knights (shades of The Natural -- and I guess the KC Royals wouldn't license their name to the movie, or MLB wouldn't let them), Sugar impresses scouts enough to get his big break -- an invitation to major league spring training in the States. (In an amusing montage, at his goodbye party Sugar is surrounded by out of the woodwork relatives reminding him who they are.)

While baseball is undeniably an opportunity that Dominicans wouldn't otherwise have, it's also clear that these training facilities are a form of exploitation of these young men, preying on their fantasies and desperation, even though the odds are still clearly stacked against them ever making it. But the film doesn't get too caught up in politics, it's a character study; these observations just become clear naturally throuigh the course of things.

As both a baseball fan and a picky fan of baseball movies,  it's also a pleasure to see a film that gets the baseball details right and (mostly) believable. A visiting scout shows Sugar how to throw a split-fingered curve which adds another weapon to his arsenal, and helps speed up his path to America. And it's one of the few movies to actually replicate the minor league hierarchy system relatively accurately. Even if the movie is much more than a baseball movie these moments are a treat for fans of the game; clearly they've done their homework here.

Sugar is sent straight to single A after spring training, which is a very rare occurrence for someone with no pro experience, at his age -- basically suspend a tiny amount of disbelief (and for the fact that he starts the team's first game of the season, too) -- and to the team's affiliate in Bridgeport, Iowa.  When he arrives in this land of cornfields it is hard of course not to think of Field of Dreams, but this is hardly a fantasy.

He is taken in by a sweet but quite conservative Bridgeport, Iowa farm family, who seem to worship Christ and the church of baseball in nearly equal measure. The elderly couple watching over him can't help but give him advice on his pitches, just as they've clearly done in years of watching the local team (and hosting other players). Without passing judgement the film shows how these people and others in the stands come to adopt local teams and players as their own, for better and for worse, feeling betrayed when they fail (some yahoos in the crowd even turn on him, cursing out Sugar when he begins to lose it on the mound). His adoptive family is more restrained in their consternation but it seems to wreck them just as much. Without revealing too much more of the plot, it is these incidents that eat at him and gradually build toward how this story concludes.

Sugar manages to venture near potentially cliche-ridden territory (the sports movie, the underdog, the immigrant) without ever crossing into it. The film is full of rich supporting characters, too, who come in and out of the picture on Sugar's journey of self-discovery. The film surprises as it becomes less about someone trying to improve themselves physically and more about inner happiness. That may make the film sound sappy, but it isn't.  

Full of life, even sexy and at times bouncy (and with a fine score), Sugar is a lovely, moving treat. Being a baseball fan is not important -- though fans of the game will certainly be pleased.

[As a side note, one-time baseball pitcher (with the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A's) Jose Rijo was a consultant on the film and has a small part as the director of the Academy.]


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Posted by cphillips at April 3, 2009 5:16 PM
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