Tuesday, December 15, 2009
We have become accustomed to sports movies that introduce conflict and end with joyous triumph. It is undeniable that when these films are done well, they are very effective, but Sugar is a film that throws formula out the window just about as quick as you fall in love with it. Newcomer Algenis Perez Soto stars as the title character in an understated, honest performance, and he's an actor that truly understands what direction film is meant to go in. Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck present a truthful look at not only the process prospects take to move their way through minor league baseball, but the entire experience of an immigrant, and that is where this film really hits you.
When we first meet Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Soto), he is playing baseball in the Dominican Republic. He is a talented, albeit raw pitching prospect, but with the advice of a scout, he learns a nasty knuckle-curve, and is invited to the United States before we know it. This is a bittersweet experience for Miguel because he truly is a family man. He loves spending time with the people he cares about, and it's not an easy thing for him to say goodbye to them, regardless of how much he loves baseball.
Miguel ends up in Iowa playing for a Single A team called the Swing. He is housed by the Higgins family, who has supported many prospects before him. The family is made up of Helen and Earl (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull) and their granddaughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield). These are good, sweet people with a vast knowledge of the game. Miguel wouldn't be better off anywhere else.
Sugar's first couple of outings go very well. He pitches just like he did back home, but it is off the field where he has trouble finding a comfort zone. He knows hardly any English and struggles to make complete conversation when he isn't on the phone with his family back home. The filmmakers give us a real sense of how much baseball means to Miguel and his family. It is a way of life for the Dominicans. Miguel was born and raised to be a baseball player, and the burden on his back is overwhelming. He manages to send good amounts of money back home, but the daunting road ahead of him consistently weighs down his happiness.
For the first hour, there is hardly anything to dislike about this film. However, I'm guessing that the film will shock a great amount of viewers with where it goes in the third act; not because it isn't a realistic path, but because it is one not often taken in "uplifting" movies. But Sugar isn't a film that is meant to bring the audience to their feet, nor is it one to make them cry, and that's part of what makes this film such a unique, rich experience.
Boden and Fleck are creating an honest portrait of the life of an immigrant, a testament to the difficulties that these people face. Yes, Sugar is benefiting his family with the money he sends home, but he never really gets to see how it benefits them. He is confined to his telephone conversations.
Regardless of how nice the Higgins family is, they don't know his language, and even though their attempted communication is well-intentioned, it ends up seeming awkward and off-putting. While this film does make the physical path to the major leagues seem attainable, it reminds us that the emotional difficulties are perhaps the more potent obstacles.
This is a film that really owes a lot to its leading performer. Soto effectively gains our sympathy and creates one of the year's most memorable characters. Many viewers might wonder what the true meaning of the "Sugar" nickname is. The film presents a couple possibilities, but never defines the exact origin. In Miguel's own eyes, it stems from his smoothness around the ladies, but it goes much deeper than that. He is a sweet, genuine kid, full of emotion, and always trying to please everybody. He is a marvel, and so is the film.