Major-league journey through the minors
"Sugar" asks us a favor, and it's this: The next time you cheer when Big Papi comes to bat, think about the hundreds of Dominican baseball players you'll never, ever hear about. Kids on whose sinewy shoulders the hopes of their families are piled. Young men who look across the ocean and see unimaginable fame hanging there like a slow, lazy meatball coming across the plate.
This beautifully observed drama, unerring in its details, tells of one such boy: Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), nicknamed "Sugar" for the sweetness of his delivery and his way with the girls. He's a pitching prospect at an American League training camp in the Dominican Republic, one of the many seeding grounds in Major League Baseball's vast farm system. Back in his shantytown neighborhood, Sugar's already a star - the kid with a ticket out of there. At the camp, he's just another hopeful with a good arm.
It's good enough, at least, to get him to a minor-league team in the States, and it's there, in an Iowa farming town, that "Sugar" begins to measure the profound dislocation professional sports asks of its young. We've seen the Dominican kids coached in English phrases back at the camp - "I got it," "Line drive," "Home runnnn!" - but none of this eases their loneliness in America. The locals are taciturn and often very kind; there's a funny, moving scene where a diner waitress teaches Sugar how to order eggs. More typical is a sequence at a church youth mixer where all the kids mean well and where the barriers of language and culture and race remain insurmountable.
So Sugar and his fellow Dominicans stay on the outside of America even as they're in it, and everything hangs on how well they play. A hot streak acquires monumental significance in "Sugar"; a slump is cataclysmic - this is how the scouts from the majors look at it, too. The temptation to experiment with performance boosters is immense - speed, not steroids, is the drug of choice - and frustration isn't allowed. "Life gives you plenty of opportunities," a coach says in the film. "Baseball only gives you one."
"Sugar" follows its title character's ups and downs with quiet empathy. Soto, a newcomer with natural cha risma, doesn't say much and doesn't have to; his watchful eyes register cockiness, bafflement, disappointment, and the slow gathering of a larger pride. There are other characters - a fellow Dominican pitcher (Kelvin Leonardo Garcia) who becomes a rival, an easygoing American-born minor leaguer (Andre Holland) who tutors Sugar in the legend of Roberto Clemente, an Iowa girl (Ellary Porterfield) whose flirtation with the hero unsettles them both. The film is told resolutely from Sugar's point of view, though. It's life seen anxiously from beneath the brim of a baseball cap.
The writer-directors are Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose debut was 2006's acclaimed "Half Nelson," about a high school teacher (Ryan Gosling) strung out on crack and uncertainty. Their sophomore outing is a quieter affair, but the duo's storytelling confidence is growing; if "Sugar" isn't flashy, neither does it put a single step wrong as it follows the hero from Caribbean poverty to Corn Belt alienation and ultimately to New York City for a confrontation with his own hopes and expectations.
It would have been easy to have turned the movie into a tract, but Boden and Fleck content themselves with smaller gestures. One shot of Sugar in an Iowa mall glancing at a shirt's "Made in the Dominican Republic" label says volumes. Of course the major-league sports machinery doesn't play fair by gifted, naïve Third World athletes; of course it spits out the majority and rewards the few. That's baseball, some would say; that's exploitation, others might respond.
The movie only watches and worries and waits for Sugar to make his own choices, which he does in a manner both deeply satisfying and a little sad. In its unhurried fashion, "Sugar" can take its place with the best baseball movies. Where most focus on the grand slam, this one's about the life that surrounds the game and everything that comes after.