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The 2009 drama Sugar is remarkable for everything it’s not. It has none of the false uplift or philosophical hokum typical of baseball movies. Yet it’s also not some sort of humor-free indie expose of what can be an exploitative system.
No, the ambitions of filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writing-directing pair behind 2006’s Half Nelson and 2010’s It’s Kind of A Funny Story, are simultaneously grander and smaller then we typically encounter in a movie like this—or most any movie for that matter. Sugar is a quiet bit of humanism that touches you in ways that are strange and surprising, and sticks with you like a poem or an odd memory you can’t let go of. But despite—or perhaps because of—its lack of Casey-at-the-bat dramatics, Sugar is the kind of feel-good story that the film itself refuses to tell: an unheralded prospect that becomes if not the best than certainly the most unheralded baseball movie ever made.
Sugar tells the story of Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a lanky right-hander who is impossibly skinny despite a penchant for the desserts that give him his nickname. He hails from the Dominican Republic, that storied land that seems to produce major league heroes like Pedro Martinez and Pedro Guerrero as rapidly as it does sugarcane. While baseball announcers act like this is the result of some kind of divine favor, the truth is that the baseball academies that dot the island nation are as ruthlessly efficient as the nearby factories making cheap T-shirts for export. Sugar was just another one of the countless teenagers toiling in one of these militaristic baseball institutions until a scout taught him a “spike curve,” a simple shifting of a finger that would become his ticket to the states.
There everything is a dream of newness and unfamiliarity. Through the eyes of Sugar and the film’s loping, fluid camera, we get to experience the familiar unfold like a dream. This is a film that viscerally captures what it’s like to walk into a video arcade or discover the existence of hotel cable porn for the first time. Sugar can’t comprehend something as banal as ordering a healthy breakfast (“French toast” is one of the few bits of English he picks up) much less the grandiosity of his new workplace, a minor league stadium tucked among Iowa cornfields. (Here, it’s the home of the fictional Bridgetown Swing, and shot majestically at Davenport’s Modern Woodmen Park, home of the Quad Cities River Bandits.)
First-time actor Algenis Perez Soto plays Sugar (not that anyone in Iowa ever learns his nickname) with a heartbreaking combination of optimism and world-weariness that a 20-year-old prospect should never possess. He suffers indignities large—a pay cut for destroying a water cooler after a bad outing—and small, like when the kindly woman who provides lodging for Sugar uses the Spanish word for “soup” when instructing him on what to put in the washing machine.
But like most everyone he encounters in this strange new world, she is mostly generous with Sugar. After all, this is a movie that champions the idea that what happens on the diamond is secondary to the victories gained in small moments shared between individuals. No, you won’t get the home run in the bottom of the 9th at the end of Sugar, but you get something better and even more fitting for the start of baseball season: a genuine sense of hope.