“Sugar” is a baseball movie, but it’s closer to “Hoop Dreams” than “The Natural.” And that’s not a bad thing.
Written and directed by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck as a follow-up to “Half Nelson,” the film is pegged on the fact that US baseball teams recruit many of their most promising talent at training camps in the Dominican Republic, where boys start practicing at a very early age, seeing the sport (with encouragement from their families) as one of the few tickets available to them for upward mobility.
The script focuses on a pitcher named Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), nicknamed Sugar, who’s plucked from one of the camps to go to America, first on a squad in Arizona and then on a feeder team called the Bridgetown Swing, a Kansas City-related Single-A club in Iowa. He’s a sweet guy hobbled by an almost total lack of English and an understandable feeling of alienation, especially in the benevolently foreign atmosphere of the Midwest, where his elderly host couple (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull) are welcoming but more interested in baseball than anything else—while their daughter (Ellary Porterfield) encourages him to join her Youth for Jesus group. Sugar’s only link to home is his compatriot Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), an injured Bridgetown player who may be on his way out.
The approach of “Sugar” is quiet, deliberate and naturalistic, and its trajectory doesn’t mimic the rah-rah one typical of sports movies. It follows Sugar’s early success in strikeouts, followed by an injury that sidelines him, an attempt to revive himself after he’s put back in rotation through drugs, and the discouragement that sets in when another Dominican ace shows up while he’s still in a slump. And it winds up not with the phony turnaround you’d expect in this sort of story, but with an ending that’s uplifting in an entirely different, far more realistic but even more satisfying way. In the process it celebrates the game, but without canonizing it.
One has to attune oneself to the pace of “Sugar,” which almost prides itself in avoiding ostentation and moving at a loping rate that matches the pitcher’s own. Even at the most overtly dramatic moments—a fight in a bar, a ruckus on the field when Sugar’s pitches go wild and he hits a batter—the directors hold back and underplay. And when Sugar, deep in his slump, strikes out in a rage (though at property, not people), the directors’ choice is to allow most of the action to occur off-screen.
That reticence extends to the performances—especially Soto’s, which is unforced yet quietly compelling. And Whitney and Bull are so convincing as his Iowa hosts that one might suspect they aren’t actors at all (they are, of course—just very good ones). Rufino, as well as Andre Holland as a US star recruit and Jaime Tirelli as a carpenter who befriends Sugar late in the story, are a bit more extroverted, but not distractingly so. The physical production follows a similar pattern. Andrij Parekh’s cinematography uses the various locations, both Dominican and American, expertly without calling attention to itself, Boden’s editing is unrushed to say the least, and Michael Brook’s music is nicely understated.
There’s an almost documentary feel to “Sugar,” a refusal to glamorize or slick up what’s actually a very simple story. Some may find that disappointing. But even with a happy ending—if not the expected one—it seems refreshingly truthful, especially for a picture about sports.