by HELEN GEIB
Sugar is the nickname of Miguel Santos, the teenaged Dominican hero of Sugar, the latest film from the writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson). Sugar (played in a remarkable debut performance by Dominican and amateur ballplayer Algenis Perez Sato) is an aspiring major leaguer and already a professional ballplayer when the film opens. He is on the lowest rung of the farm system of the Kansas City Knights, a fictional MLB club that closely resembles the real ones. Sugar has been training for some months at a baseball camp in the Dominican Republic, run by the Knights to scout local talent, when he is called up for a trial period in the U.S. The story follows him through a summer playing Single A ball in a small town in Iowa.
Early scenes quickly establish that Sugar plays baseball for economic reasons. A major league career is a ticket to financial security for himself, his family, and in a trickle down effect, a wide circle of neighbors, distant relatives, and acquaintances. The film’s treatment of Sugar’s Iowa sojourn dispels any lingering notion that this is a sports movie by genre. While the camera sometimes follows its subject onto the mound or into the clubhouse, it’s because what happens there is important in his life, and because it adds to our understanding of him. Sugar offers a well-researched and convincing picture of Major League baseball as a business, but it is not interested in love of the game, winning and losing, team-building, the game as cultural signifier, or other preoccupations of the sports movie.
This is a coming of age and coming to America movie. Sugar is young and very far from home. When he gets his visa the only English he knows is the baseball terminology he’s been taught in the training camp. The only support the Knights provide – and granted it proves to be a significant emotional support – is to arrange for him to stay with Earl and Helen Higgins, a retired Iowa farmer and his wife who are crazy about baseball and enjoy acting as host family to young players. The meat of the story is in Sugar’s emotional struggles: with loneliness; with the pressure of his family’s expectations; with his own conflicted feelings about playing baseball as a career path.
Boden and Fleck construct the story for an effect of low-key realism. There are no villains. The corporate organization is indifferent, perhaps even callous considering their youth and circumstances, but not malicious towards its foreign prospects. Sugar isn’t sent off to America under an ultimatum to make it big or not come back. The Higginses are very kind and the manager of the Iowa farm team is a reasonable man who wants his players to succeed. The characters and situations are uniformly plausible.
The production design, soundtrack of mostly source music, and cinematography are of a piece with the story. The camerawork is artful without being obtrusive. The customary calm of the camera set-ups and editing can be temporarily disturbed before returning to equilibrium, an effective visual expression of Sugar’s sometimes disordered state of mind. The standout sequence is a long tracking shot that captures Sugar’s persistent feelings of isolation as it follows him walking in a self-imposed solitary cocoon through the corridors and public areas of a hotel.
The DVD special features include deleted scenes, an interview with star Algenis Perez Sato, interviews with MLB star players Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz, a “making of” short feature, and a short feature entitled “Play Beisbol! The Dominican Dream.” The DVD also has extremely misleading cover art superimposing Sugar in uniform against a backdrop of a large stadium under a sky filled with fireworks. I don’t know whether this image will induce more people to buy the DVD, but it will certainly give them the wrong impression of the film’s subject matter and tone.
New releases this week: Battle for Terra, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Observe and Report, Tulpan