The story concerns 19 year-old Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a talented pitcher from the Dominican Republic who dreams of getting sent to the U.S. to make it big in the major leagues. Before he can get that far though, he has to start lower, and his big dreams start off with him being sent through the ranks of the minor leagues, where he ends up in a small Iowa town. His experiecnes there, mostly involving his struggles with a foreign language and culture cause him to start reevaluating his life's ambition and make him question if he's really on the right path in life.
This is a sports movie, but not in the typical sense. It's mostly a character study about the immigrant experience in the U.S., with a nice examination specifically of Latin American and Caribbean athletes and how they fit into the big picture. I originally thought this was a documentary, or perhaps a docudrama, but no, the specific story is entirely fictional, though it is heavily influenced by real life stories
That I thought this was non-fiction is a testament to Boden and Fleck's knowledge of the subject, and the high leve lof authenticity and honesty on display in the film. They did their homework, and realy know their stuff, and the result is a wonderful look at both the immigrant experience, and the world of immigrants in the minor leagues.
If I have to air complaints, then I'll point out that the film's overall pacing could have been perhaps a bit tighter, and how the third act overall seems to lose a lot of momentum I thought. It doesn't derail completely, but it does start to drag. Also, the way the flm was done just seemed really "typical" to me. There's no denying this is an indie film, and it seems like the film wants that fact to be known. Kidna got to me a bit, especially since Boden and Fleck's other two major films are like that as well (to varying degrees).
All in all though, this is a really decent film. It's got some good performances, a great message, and is an insightful look into a neat subject.
And yet, like "Half-Nelson," the previous film by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, I ended up liking this movie a lot more in theory than in practice. Its slow, natural pace lacked any spark of excitement. In fairness, this is likely intentional and perhaps the point. But I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something else I wanted from the film that I wasn't getting. And in the end, I have to go with my gut feeling about this, even if I can't clearly communicate it.
"Sugar" is Miguel Santos, a baseball pitcher from the Dominican Republic who is scouted and sent "up" to a farm team in Iowa to pitch for an MLB team in the hopes of one day making it to the big show. Played so humbly by Algenis Perez Soto, Santos is so meek that he could be wiped off screen or forgotten about, if not for his talent.
Arriving in Iowa, the language barrier makes Santos functionally illiterate, and an elderly couple from a farming community offer him a room; we learn that they are long-time boarders of ball players from their local team and that they are not strangers to immigrant players of the Spanish-speaking persuasion. We also learn that the couple, Earl and Helen Higgins, know their baseball. And they're not afraid to share that knowledge with their young boarders, whether they can understand it or not.
Truth be told, baseball is more of a initial incident for SUGAR's narrative, a backdrop. This is really an immigrant's tale. And it's a quietly engaging one. We see Sugar on the phone with his mom regularly, trying to pass along the idea that all is well, whether it is or not. For while Sugar is appreciated and welcomed by the Higgins family, he is a 20-year-old forced to exist as something of a much younger teen because of the cultural barriers. He is invited to bible studies and frustrated by the mixed signals that the white girls send out about their carnal interests. Before long, he's not even sure if the whole baseball thing is going to work.
My favorite thing about SUGAR is its subtle criticism of the dream factory of professional baseball and the perceived ideology that it is the only path to economic success for young men from the Dominican Republic and areas of similar economic status. Yankee Stadium is their White House, their Wall Street, quite possibly their Heaven. And 99% of these young men will fail, not even because they are not strong-willed enough, but because a line of young men waits in the wings to take their spots and a single misfortune, such as a minor injury or a bad game, can give that patient young man a chance to replace someone in their spot.
From an immigration story point of view, SUGAR is gentle and non-judgmental. It reminds us of the hardships that immigrants (illegal or otherwise) must go through every day just to work for two quarters to rub together. It avoids politics completely and traffics instead in humanity and hope.
In addition, and as I've mentioned before, SUGAR steers mercifully clear of every past baseball film's stereotypes. There is not a single bottom-of-the-ninth, two-outs-and-two-strikes scenario in the entire film. Not a moment of slow motion as a popped-up ball arcs through a blue sky en route to right center field. Come to think of it, the scoreboard is rarely shown at all. And if it is, it has more to do with the number of innings Sugar has pitched or feels able to pitch than it does with which team is winning and which is losing. Even the ending is not what you might expect, though it is certainly logical. I won't spoil it for you here, but it is a sobering reality check of a clincher.
Baseball is a damaged sport, not quite the American dream game it once was. With today's rampant steroid scandals and the high number of non-American, non-English-speaking athletes in the game, maybe we needed a movie like SUGAR to remind us of the sport's original promises and simple dreams.
As I reread what I've written here, I still don't feel that I've said anything to diminish this refreshing, quiet little film as anything short of a four-star film. And yet, in deference to my gut, I remain in like with SUGAR, but not in love. There's something very somber about the movie, and for some reason, the emotional impact of the film never delivered for me. I felt like I was held at arm's length from a genuine emotional connection. I was never truly absorbed by the film. Not all of the camera work achieved impact for me. The song choices were terrible (most conspicuously, a Spanish version of the please-put-it-to-bed "Hallelujah"). SUGAR was very good in a lot of ways but, for me, not good enough in enough ways.
Unlike Half Nelson, wherein the Dan Dunne is destined to remain a basehead-- Sugar Santos is a man with all the talent in the world, and the real hook is seeing where he takes this talent. The filmmakers explore the reality of poverty in Latin American slums, where the hope of making it in the States is the only means of prosperity-- not too far from that of the Philippines. Therefore, the local boys play baseball like it's the only thing that matters. Sugar shows us that some of these boys don't really care about the promise of steady money from the clubs, but the alternative to it is often times much worse.
The flow of the film is great, and the ending though bitter-sweet, really does a good job showing the protagonist realize his true love of the game-- even if it isn't what he expected.