With a gently observant eye more on the lookout for revelatory cultural detail and emotional truth than for melodramatic excitement, “Sugar” intriguingly draws the curtain back on the seldom considered world of Dominican baseball players trying to make it in the United States. Sympathetic, genial and exceedingly wholesome, it’s a film that, once seen, will permanently and favorably influence the way viewers regard the characters’ real-life counterparts. HBO Films offering will be well received wherever it plays, notably in Latin America; expansion beyond highly specialized situations in Stateside theatrical release would be daunting.
Although Dominican former World Series MVP Jose Rijo was a principal advisor and even appears here as an actor, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to their widely admired “Half-Nelson” is no conventional success story of a young man stirringly bucking the odds to rise from obscurity to triumph. Rather, it takes stock of many the factors that can tip the balance for or against even a genuinely talented athlete to go all the way with his God-given gifts.
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In the case of “Sugar,” there are considerations that work in both directions as far as young Dominican hopefuls are concerned. Due to the D.R.’s massive success in sending top players to the U.S. Major Leagues –Juan Marichal, Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez rep just the beginning of the list — the training of potential stars has become a significant industry on the island, with well run baseball academies, American team reps on the ground to scout and develop talent, and local coaches drilling their charges in English baseball lingo.
If you’re any good, you’re bound to be noticed, which is what happens to 19-year-old Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a sweet kid with a mean knuckle curveball. As with so many others in his small town of San Pedro De Macoris, Sugar’s family hopes he’ll be one of the lucky young men signed by an American team to a minor league assignment up north, which alone provides an income well beyond what’s possible locally.
On home turf, Sugar is loose and confident, with a girlfriend and a healthy sense of self, so he’s not surprised when he, with a few others, is called up for spring training.
First stop is Arizona, where there are nice moments as the youngsters behold the splendor of the facilities and repeatedly order only French toast at a local diner for lack of English to explore the menu further.
Sugar’s sharp stuff earns him a trip to the Single-A team in Bridgetown, Iowa, where he’s assigned to board with the Higgins family on its bucolic farm. The senior couple, avid ball fans who put players up every spring, are very old-fashioned and couldn’t be nicer, and their religious teenage daughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield), threatens to be more than that. But the sense of isolation clearly weighs on Sugar, who, for the simple reason of the language barrier, has no one to talk to except for Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), an old friend from the island who’s still stuck on the Bridgetown Swing team due to a lingering injury.
Sugar’s season starts with a bang as he racks up a dizzying number of strikeouts. But there are many small incidents which, together, feed his sense of dislocation and inwardness: Lack of familiar food, Anne’s uncertain offerings of intimacy and her well-intentioned but awkward inclusion of Sugar in a religious youth club gathering, a racial incident at a nightclub where local boys hassle Latins dancing with white girls, and the related issue of the lack of any Spanish-speaking ladies to date (by contrast, he hears that Dominican friends playing in Arizona have more women than they can handle).
When Sugar sustains a minor injury that puts him on the sidelines for a spell, inaction and solitariness trigger a downward spiral soon to be exacerbated by the arrival of a fresh Dominican pitching sensation who makes Sugar old news. But Sugar’s odyssey does not end there, taking some unexpected turns on its way to an open ending.
Observing without editorializing, Boden and Fleck open a hitherto unexplored world in a work that, in line with its title, leans toward the sweet rather than the gritty. Obstacles and pressures notwithstanding, Sugar’s journey is seen as more of a life adventure than a do-or-die enterprise that will spell tragedy if not accomplished successfully; after all, most wannabe players from all locations never make it to the bigs, and far fewer still become stars.
The other side of this refreshing approach, however, is a lack of urgency and juice; only fleetingly does the film convey the thrill of competition, the anxiety of anticipation, the game’s exhilarating highs and devastating lows, the complexity of friendships among young men competing for the same few available slots, the often raucous, taunting and bawdy camaraderie among jocks. Rather, the feeling the film imparts is of a knowledgeable inside view rather than a fully felt subjective one.
Pic evocatively captures its various settings, nicely contrasting the pristine Dominican training camps with the ramshackle towns and using deft brushstrokes to paint the splendid isolation of the Iowa farmlands. Language issues are also nicely handled, with some Americans courteously making an effort to simplify their speech to enable Sugar to understand while he himself makes slow progress in the foreign tongue.
The lanky Perez Soto makes for an ingratiating lead, and his actual background as a teen player (the Dominican thesps were chosen from among baseball players rather than actors) means that he’s entirely convincing on the field. Pic could have used more engaging involvement from supporting players, most of whom make minimal impressions.