Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.21.09


The Great Escape
Quiet baseball drama is a champ
by Jason Blair

SUGAR: Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Cinematography, Andrij Parekh. Music, Michael Brook. Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino and Andre Holland. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009. R. 96 minutes.

Ellary Porterfield and Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar

Sugar, the new film by the directors of Half Nelson, begins and ends with our hero atop a pitcher’s mound. Tucked in between is a minor league season, one that elapses with all the boredom and fury you’d expect from a modern baseball drama. But baseball is a side attraction in Sugar, as mature and empathetic as any sports flick in recent memory. In the era of Eastbound and Down — HBO’s terrific spoof of a clueless ex-pro baseballer — we can expect a glut of baseball satire, given what the game has done to itself. Meanwhile, Sugar has other scores to settle. It’s about how easily undone are the dreams of being among the best at something, and how to in order to be the best, it can be necessary to leave those we love behind. Sugar works as an immigrant saga, a coming of age story and a coming-down-to-earth cautionary tale. In short, Sugar is pure and honest, which is more than we can say for baseball itself.

Sugar begins in San Pedro in the Dominican Republic, a modest town that has produced more than 30 professional baseball players. In the baseball academy of the Kansas City Knights, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) awaits a phone call from America. Drafted when he was 16, he’s been in the system for three years. The early scenes of Sugar are loose and authentic, moving quickly from classroom language lessons — “fly ball,” “line drive” — to shots of Miguel hurling strikes. The film doesn’t pause for breath until Miguel returns to his grimy neighborhood, at which point we realize exactly what he’s up against: His friends already consider him the next Pedro Martinez. Even his mother can’t sleep until Miguel turns pro. Then something remarkable happens: While playing dominoes, Miguel insults a former top prospect who, while clearly still young, is already washed up. What Miguel can’t see is that he’s one misfortune away from a fate such as this. The passage is lyrical, even mournful, as Miguel immediately regrets the comment while the offended says nothing to defend himself. A fitful Miguel then teases a younger prospect, who chases him into the ocean. Crisis averted. Lesson learned?

Eventually, Miguel gets the call. He lands in Iowa in the minor league system as a boarder in a family home. Surrounded by corn, strip malls and bushels of farmers’ daughters, Miguel, always a disciplined player, allows himself a few distractions. Up to this point, Sugar avoids the kinds of clichés that undo typical sports films, which tend to overdramatize the temptations and simplify the outcomes. But the film hits a cliché patch as Miguel faces adversity for the first time. After its careful, convincing setup, Sugar accelerates through its rising action like a pitcher scrambling through his windup. Following a leg injury, Miguel inexplicably loses his velocity; no longer dominant, Miguel appears finished only days after looking pitching fiercely. Naturally, we cut to a quiet corner of the clubhouse, where a tubby white guy slips pills to Miguel. “You didn’t get these from me,” he says, the line thudding like a dropped fly ball. The pills give Miguel his best start — and worst finish. However briefly, the clichés come marching in. The coaching staff abandons him. He loses his cool, then recovers himself to make a crucial decision, one that will determine the rest of his life. The surprise move sets up a strong third act, taking Sugar from ordinary to extraordinary.

A moving film about an aspect of professional sports we rarely see — its development of foreign players — Sugar is among the better sports films in a long while. Its use of non-actors overturns the conventional thinking (which the recent Gran Torino solidified) that only professionals can be convincing. As Sugar, Perez Soto is a natural, as is this terrific film.

Sugar opens Friday, May 22, at the Bijou.