Sugar opens Friday in select theaters
Sugar is a moving, often funny, powerfully simple story about immigration, growing up, and the detail-rich beauty of baseball. Chronicling the struggles of pitching prospect Miguel "Sugar" Santos as he moves from the Dominican Republic to stay with a family of teetotalers in rural Iowa, one of the most profound things about this movie is the way it captures Santos' intense feelings of loneliness. The story development of Sugar works in a deceptively low-key fashion similar to a low-scoring pitchers duel. The result is an immigrant story that has one of the strongest emotional impacts of any movie I've seen lately.
The sensitive handling of the subject matter by writers-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the team that made Half Nelson, which I haven't seen but will be sure to now) is the reason I was moved and saddened by Sugar. As scenes build quietly on one another and character details multiply, their approach yields maximum empathy in the audience. Boden and Fleck know exactly what they're doing; they are as precise and analytic in their approach to this baseball drama as ace pitcher Johan Santana is on the mound.
Santos is a fictional character based on countless real people: he's a 20-year-old pitching prospect from a poor town in the Dominican Republic, trying to rise through the multi-tiered farm system of a (fictional) major league ball club.
In a radio interview the filmmakers gave upon the New York release of the film, they implied that they researched this film as they would a documentary, interviewing aspiring Latin American ballplayers on camera before crafting their script. This investment in their subject shows, as they portray so believably what it must be like to be transplanted from the Dominican Republic, a sticky-summery country of open-door homes, to the arid land of Iowa.
In my experience, most people who don't like baseball say that it is slow and boring, and I can imagine detractors of Sugar saying the same thing. But, as any baseball fan will tell you, to call the sport boring is missing what's appealing about it. Baseball is a quiet game in which loads of details, strategies and on-field movements can easily go unnoticed. Even while the pitcher is holding the ball at his side with play at a standstill, silent communications and undetectable psych-outs are buzzing through the field. As the hitter steps to the plate, players on the field position themselves and move in orchestrated ways that lay observers cannot be fully aware of. But once all this fine-tuned positioning results in the perfect precision of a sublimely turned double play, you notice the details in retrospect and realize one of the great beauties of the game.
Sugar's understated dramatic turns work the same way. There are no major confrontations, huge plot twists, grand slams or no-hitters. Scenes are not structured around a single moment or idea, but are laid out with a studious wealth of detail. Boden and Fleck give equal attention to Santos learning how to throw a knuckle curve and his attempt to order eggs in a diner. I choked up watching Santos learn how to say "scrambled," "over-easy" and "sunny-side up" because Boden and Fleck had built up to the moment with such calm precision in the preceding diner scenes.
Meanwhile, the realistic depiction of contemporary racial tension—menacing looks and an underlying feeling, not racial slurs and overt discrimination—runs throughout the film, as does the anxiety of the competition between players trying to move from Single-A, through the ranks of the farm system, to maybe one day play in the majors. Guys move up and get sent down for reasons that they only partly control. The deft delineation of how it must feel to live and play in this environment has a strong, unexpected payoff that comprises most of the third act. I don't want to give anything away, but you can be sure there aren't any ninth-inning fireworks and celebrations.
There is occasional corniness—Santos' teammate turning him on to the band TV On The Radio, a strained effort to end on a positive note—but it only stands out sharply because of the pitch-perfect tone of the rest of the movie. As big league contracts continue to swell and steroid allegations keep rolling out (say it ain't so, Manny), this study of essentially fun-loving and innocent young men trying to get to the big show should be refreshing for baseball fans. More importantly, Sugar is an empathic film about the psychological and emotional difficulty of being a stranger in a new place. Any true fan of the game knows that foreigners from Roberto Clemente to Ichiro Suzuki make baseball better. Any true American knows that immigrant culture is what makes this country worth living in. This movie is a touching reminder of both.