June, 2009, Drama

Baseball movies are a strange aggregation of slapstick, (Major League) sweaty romance, (Bull Durham) pious biography, (Pride of the Yankees) and ethereal reflection on the meaning of life (Field of Dreams). Fitfully successful at the box office, this branch of the sports film genre is enhanced by this quiet, thoughtful examination of those who labor long and hard to find success in the game only to wind up settling for other careers and fond memories of what briefly was and might have been.

The writing/directing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who three years ago provided audiences with an authentically-detailed examination of the challenges in inner city education (Half Nelson) present Algenis Perez Soto, (an actual baseball player turned thespian) as Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a 19-yr. old pitcher from the Dominican Republic trying to ride a solid work ethic and a promising curveball into the big leagues. The sole support of his grandmother, mother and little sister, Miguel knows he’s the only hope for lifting his family out of poverty. The people in his small village explode with pride when he’s invited to attend a try-out camp in Florida run by the Kansas City Royals.

Encountering a level of regimented training comparable to that endured by soldiers in basic training, Miguel works hard, endures the isolation which the program demands and struggles to learn the English version of the calls umpires will make should he be fortunate enough to earn a spot playing for one of Kansas City’s farm teams.

When he’s assigned to the roster of a single-A team playing in the farm country of rural Iowa, Miguel discovers he must battle an often baffling culture far removed from the one in which he was raised and the pressures of learning the fine points of his trade in front of crowds that quickly boo his mistakes while also coping with the realization there are many other talented hopefuls with whom he must compete. Lonely, struggling to make himself and his feelings understood by a coach (Michael Gaston) who cares only for the continued quality of his performances on the mound and increasingly terrified by the number of teammates who wash out of the system, Miguel abruptly leaves the team a few weeks before the end of the season, catches a bus to New York City to visit a friend from back home and slowly comes to terms with the disconnect between his athletic aspirations and the skills he brings to the game.

Boden and Fleck work with such a pared-down script Sugar initially has the look and feel of a documentary; Soto’s obvious skills, a detailed examination of the regimented training program he and his fellow recruits endure and the hokey atmosphere of minor league baseball as it’s played “in the sticks” all make for a fascinating portrait of the sport which still deserves the title of our national pastime. The largely unknown cast of Latino athletes convey a mixture of easy camaraderie and a shared sense of isolation as they respond to the rigors of their training and they mirror the nail-biting agony of college students checking exam results as the players scan the training camp’s bulletin board each week to see who’s been tapped to take the next step in going up “to the show”. Veteran character actor Gaston (Bodies of Lies and extensive appearances in network television dramas) plays Sugar’s coach with just the right managerial blend of genuine interest in his subordinate and selfish concern for his own career.

But it’s Miguel’s progression, over the course of his first few months in America, from wide-eyed, ambitious adolescent to sober realist which provides not only the movie’s emotional impact but also sufficient gravitas to qualify Sugar as a candid evocation of the wrenching adjustments demanded of immigrants who must temper their dreams with the realities they encounter on the ground. The result is a film that transforms itself from a simple example of its genre into one with far more universal impact and appeal. In that regard, Sugar thematically extends the recently released Sin Nombre; taken together, they provide a nuanced examination of the perils and accomplishments involved in forging a new life here.

The Verdict? A perfectly detailed examination of the journey into adulthood - - this little gem really sneaks up on you.

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