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Starring: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Ann Whitney

Directed by: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden

Produced by: Paul Mezey, Jamie Patricof, Jeremy Kipp Walker

Written by: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

As seen at AFI Fest 2008:

     Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's baseball drama Sugar serves as further proof—after 2006's Half Nelson—of the filmmaking duo's skillful ability to take old-fashioned premises and turn them into piercing, unconventional character studies.

     Here, Fleck and Boden's subject is Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a young baseball player nicknamed by his teammates for his sweet tooth. Early on in the film, Miguel and two other players are recruited from a Dominican Republic training camp to play minor-league ball for an Iowa-based team. What immediately follows is a traditional (but totally pleasing) examination of culture-shock as Miguel moves from the Caribbean to the Midwest, but Fleck and Boden only use this setup as an easy way to gain viewers' sympathy for the character before taking a deeper approach. The audience initially bonds with Miguel in the way they would a typical underdog athlete, perhaps even more than they usually would due to the "stranger in a strange land"-element. It's hard not to develop a love for the guy when he walks into a distinctly American diner, for instance, and tries to order eggs, only to discouragingly concede defeat and ask for his usual French toast when his English isn't good enough to tell the waitress how he would like them cooked. (This, of course, is followed by the token pay-off scene in which she brings him all three types and he eagerly learns how to pronounce the terms "scrambled," "over easy," and "sunny-side up.")

     But Sugar quickly becomes all but you're average baseball film, studying a young man who has come to the Land of Opportunity with little resources beyond baseball, a game that allows very few potential players prosperous futures. Fleck best expressed the feeling that dominates Sugar's second-half in the Q&A following an AFI Fest screening: "It's clear the movie won't end with Miguel playing his first game at Yankee Stadium." The story isn't so much a knock on the idea of the American Dream as it is a realistic look at how many Dominican boys are brought up with hopes of playing baseball and how few actually end up Sammy Sosa. Boden and Fleck explore what happens to those who don't make it to the Majors through their fictional protagonist, and the results are just as interesting on a human level as they are as a fact-based look at a sport. Miguel remains an endearing protagonist throughout—and at a far deeper level than the film's initial set-up leads us to expect. By the end of the film, he's become a complex man. (I'll leave it at that glib statement so as to not give too much away).

     Just as critical to the Miguel character’s depth as Boden and Fleck's assured writing and direction is Algenis Perez Soto's performance. A non-actor the filmmakers found playing baseball in the D.R., Soto is a natural, handling the comedic and dramatic material concerning his character's misadventures in America just as well as he does the baseball passages. Boden and Fleck were right to choose him because his work lends a fresh, unpretentious feel you can't get from someone who has the expressed intent of studying a character. Sugar never comes across so naturalistically that it imitates a documentary—that would defeat the movie's purpose of toying with the payoff of a traditional premise—but it certainly seems realistic. In fact, the only time the movie feels forced is when Fleck and Boden interject with artificial attempts to make the material more socially relevant. In one scene, a Barack Obama magnet appears on Miguel's Iowa caretakers' refrigerator—totally unnecessary, if prophetic—and in another, Spike Lee's Katrina doc When the Levees Broke plays on the TV in the background. Sugar would have been better off without these gratuitous additions, which make it seem like the subject matter isn’t culturally valuable on its own merits (which it is). The film is otherwise a heartfelt, sharply focused, and thought-provoking look at a person who even die-hard baseball fans may have never even considered.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.5.2008

Screened on: 11.7.2008 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, CA.


Sugar is rated R and runs 114 minutes.

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