Algenis Perez Soto plays dodgeball with the disbelievers in Sugar.
As the story of a young baseball player from the Dominican Republic who navigates his way through the lower minor leagues in the United States, there is every reason to expect Sugar to fall in step with the lion’s share of sports movies. The only question: Will it be a tale of struggle and ultimate redemption, or the less popular kind of story about struggle and ultimate disaster.
The simple fact is that Sugar does neither, and I’m going to admit right off the bat that the shades of gray strewn throughout the latter half of this movie had me in a bit of a quandary
as the credits rolled. As a confession, I’m a hardcore baseball fan and believe it to be one of the most significant cultural contributions (alongside jazz, the civil-rights movement and Angelina Jolie) ever to spring from the fertile American landscape. Yes, I get a little verklempt while watching the cheeseball masterpiece The Natural. And yes, Eight Men Out, the hard-hitting and brilliant depiction of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal that will forever stain our greatest game, makes me both sad and uncomfortable.
Sugar, the sophomore feature effort from the writer/director team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (their debut, the acclaimed Half Nelson, earned an Oscar nomination for Ryan Gosling’s role as a drug-addicted high-school teacher), tracks the story of budding pitcher Miguel “Sugar” Santos (so nicknamed, he tells his new teammates, because he’s so sweet with the ladies) as he rises from a baseball academy in the D.R. to spring training in Arizona and then directly to Single-A ball in a small Iowa city.
If Santos’ rocket right arm and rapid ascension through the lower minor leagues are dreams of a lifetime for many an American kid (and at least one adult who wonders, longingly, if he would have been better served concentrating on baseball in high school instead of, say, soccer, girls and fishing), they are dreams of a lifeline for any number of Dominican kids. The baseball academies run by many major league teams in that country represent great hope for impoverished Dominican families, who stand to cash in big if their progeny make it to the Bigs.
In the effort to portray this dynamic realistically, Boden and Fleck took their production team to the D.R. and filmed at an actual baseball academy and on the poverty riddled streets of a small Dominican village. The results are stunning. You can feel the immense hopes riding on these young men as they go through their drills, as well as the envy, adulation and supreme ass kissing that accompany news of a promotion.
That sense of realism continues as the film crew moves to the notoriously harsh Arizona light for the spring training scenes, and then on to Iowa to a genuine minor league ballpark for the Single-A scenes. Boden and Fleck chose to include a host family—a community resource some teams use to house their low-minor players and thus allow them to conserve their minor league pay—for Sugar, a move that pays off hugely as Sugar assimilates into American culture and when he reaches a crisis point and needs someone to turn to for help.
Having written a feature story for the Indy some years ago about three young Osprey prospects—during the research of which I interviewed host families and hung around the players as they socialized downtown—I can attest that Boden and Fleck nailed the combination of confusion and bemusement the non-English speaking Latin players display as they interact with their host families and the culture that envelops them (a dance club scene in the movie had particular resonance with my experience with the players).
Another component of realism here is the lead actor. The filmmakers auditioned hundreds of Dominican ballplayers before settling on Algenis Perez Soto, a former prospect who never made it to the United States as a player. He absolutely crushes the role of Sugar. From the barest hint of a smile as he delivers a brush-back pitch at the beginning of the movie to the pained reflection that closes the film, Soto is magnificent.
This is not a movie about the redemptive power of baseball, or the virtue of perseverance, or an unexpected culmination of the American Dream. And even though, as a sappy baseball fan, I wanted it to be at least one if not all three of these things, Sugar just might be a better thing than any of them. It’s a film that digs deeply and truly into a world so many of us see from the outside but so few see lit up from within. And the complexity of the game itself is echoed in the hard choices forced upon the overwhelming majority of hopefuls who never come close to sipping that proverbial cup of coffee.