I had very high expectations for "Sugar," as it was written and directed by [b]Ryan Fleck[/b] and [b]Anna Boden[/b], the filmmakers who gave us "Half-Nelson," one of the most extraordinary films of the decade. But alas, "Sugar" has none of the magic of "Half-Nelson." It's not a bad film, but it's nothing spectacular.
The topic is very interesting. "Sugar" I believe is the first American film with a Dominican protagonist. This has been a long time coming. It's great to see this important immigrant group finally getting some attention. Dominicans are particularly important when it comes to American baseball, where they have a disproportionate influence. There are countless baseball stars who are Dominican, but I'm sure that most fans don't know that these stars are Dominican. I'm also sure that 98% of these fans could not find the Dominican Republic on a map. And white fans in New York have no doubt never been to a Dominican neighborhood, even when the neighborhood is right next door. Everyone ignores Dominicans.
They occupy a unique place in American life today, with an odd mixture of influence and invisibility. I imagine that Fleck and Boden were attracted to this film idea because of the unique cultural position of Dominicans.
"Sugar" is a work of fiction, but it feels almost like a documentary. We meet a young baseball player in the Dominican Republic. He plays in a league where scouts from Major League Baseball are constantly circling. They have their eye on this man, who is known to his friends as Azucar (sugar). His hometown is not much more than a shantytown, but he has a very loving family. Amidst all the poverty there is much love -- as is most often the case with Dominicans, in my experience. (I live in Washington Heights, the major Dominican neighborhood in New York City.)
Sugar's great dream (and the dream of almost every Dominican male, it seems) is to be sent to the United States to play baseball. When the fantasy comes true, we go along for the ride, watching him try to deal with life in Iowa. Fleck and Boden emphasize the culture clash between Santo Domingo and Iowa but in ways that I thought were rather obvious.
The baseball league sends Sugar to live with a lovable but clueless white family. It's funny to watch them speaking in the normal fashion, as if he's an English speaker. Yet he doesn't understand a word. Oddly, the baseball organization doesn't give any of the Latino players English lessons. I presume that this is something Fleck and Boden found out in their research. Why is it so difficult for Americans to offer immigrants English lessons? It's one of the great missing pieces in American life. We make it immensely difficult for immigrants to learn our language, then we judge them for not having learned it!
The language barrier leads to social isolation, which is Sugar's greatest challenge. It is nearly impossible for him to interact with Americans socially, which causes a tremendous loneliness. We especially see his pain as he runs up against walls every time he tries to flirt with an American girl. There are hints of racism in this as Fleck and Boden depict it, which is no doubt true to life.
Sugar's odyssey abruptly shifts at the midpoint of the film, the details of which I won't reveal, and the story moves to New York City. Here Sugar finally finds a Latino community, which is a great relief to him. But his struggles continue for other reasons.
This sounds like an interesting story, but the direction is most often pedestrian. The script is also for the most part mundane. I can recommend the film but not very highly. Fleck and Boden had a great story idea and a great cast of Dominicans (led very well by newcomer [b]Algenis Soto[/b]), but they didn't execute very well. They seemed to be imitating the style of television directors instead of bringing their unique cinematic skills to the playing field.