As the Major League Baseball regular season winds down, most of us fans are in the process of packing up our World Series aspirations for another long winter of “wait ‘til next year.” Such a bittersweet time of transition (and please, no taunting from those of you whose teams are playoff bound) sets the perfect tone for Sugar. It’s the latest indie film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, directors and writers of Half Nelson, the aching 2006 tale of a crack-addicted-teacher that earned Ryan Gosling an Oscar nom.
Sugar is a similarly quiet, low-key film. Yes, it’s about a young sweet-natured Dominican pitcher working his way through the American MLB professional baseball system. No, it’s not really a baseball film.
Granted, it opens with Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) and his peers in training in the Dominican Republic at an academy designed to help them make it to America. They practice fundamentals as well as how to say in English “fly ball,” “I got it,” and “hoooome ruuuun.” MLB scouts swing by regularly to scoop up anyone with potential and hustle them off to the mainland and into teams’ farm systems. (Today Dominicans make up 15% of MLB players and 30% of American minor league players.)
Eventually Sugar finds himself far from home, in the wild cornfields of Iowa, playing for the fictional Bridgetown Swing minor-league farm team. Hosted by a kindly, God-fearing, baseball-loving Midwestern couple, he must, like so many immigrants, overcome language and cultural barriers, and send as much money as he can home to his family–all while navigating the mental and physical stress of professional pitching and the push to get to the Show.
Real-life Dominican ballplayer and first-time actor Soto gives Sugar an open expressiveness that also feels physically authentic. (No Tim Robbins throws here.) A potential movie star for the taking, Soto holds our attention even when his character is simply standing and watching, trying to soak it all in and figure it all out.
Sugar is not The Natural. Or Bull Durham. Or Field of Dreams. Or The Rookie. It’s certainly not Major League. There is no Big Game and no Rocky/Rudy melodramatic swell of success. In fact, like Half Nelson, it’s a film that steadfastly refuses to shoehorn in any sort of predictable or formulaic narrative beats. Sugar follows its protagonist closely and quietly, letting the natural rhythms of a person’s life—not just that of a professional athlete–take over.
There are struggles with control on the mound, and groupies, and racial outbursts, and a flirtation with a fair-haired, fresh-scrubbed Iowa girl (Ellary Porterfield) whose evangelical zeal Sugar mistakes for romantic affection. There may be a bench-clearing brawl, but like everything else in the film, that familiar scene is presented honestly and naturally. Baseball is Sugar’s job, passion, and calling, but it may or may not be his life.
That highly objective, non-traditional narrative flow is not going to be for everyone. Both unsentimental and un-cynical, this is a slow, careful film that is not out to tell its viewers anything—it’s about showing where Sugar’s life takes him, not where a movie script would have him go. We are seeing a study, not a story, and we don’t come away with answers, only deeper observations.
As a result, those of us weaned on We-Are-the-Champions-style sports movies may feel a frustrating disconnect from Sugar—the film doesn’t give us the feel-good triumphs we’ve come to expect, and the character doesn’t always make choices we feel are “proper” for a sports-film “hero.” (Or even an “anti-hero” like Crash Davis.)
Instead, Sugar is a lovely film about the beauty found in ordinary strengths and weaknesses. It opens with the atmosphere of training camp–all green and full of promise as it looks ahead–and winds up somewhere closer to late September, when not all pennant dreams can be fulfilled. But like every baseball team’s season, Sugar leaves us with the rich satisfaction of a genuine effort and the hope for something new and better next year. In that sense it’s not a baseball movie, it’s a human movie.