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  • TBC
  • Drama, Sport
  • 2008
  • 114 mins

Sugar

Sugar

Synopsis

The second feature from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind classroom drama Half Nelson, traces a young Dominican's pursuit of the American dream through baseball

About

It ends with a face caught in medium close-up, alternating between distracted doubt and a tentative smile. The face belongs to Miguel Santos (Algenis Soto), nicknamed 'Sugar' ("I'm sweet with the ladies," he explains, "but mostly because I've got the sweetest curveball") - although the film that takes his name is, like the shifting expression that he sports in that final, lingering shot, as bitter as it is sweet.

Nineteen-year-old Miguel is one of the thousands of young hopefuls from the Dominican Republic whose baseball skills have set them on the long course to make it - maybe, just maybe - to the American big leagues, in the hope of securing financial security for themselves and their families back home. Already playing professionally in a local US-funded baseball academy, he is a cocky celebrity in his village of San Pedro De Macorís, even if the presence of older Jorge Ramirez (Rayniel Rufino), held back from baseball success by constant injuries, casts a haunting shadow over Miguel's own otherwise inexorable-seeming trajectory towards sporting superstardom.

All Miguel's wishes appear to have come true when he is scouted and summoned to the Land of Opportunity. His assignment, however, to a minor league team in rural Iowa leaves him linguistically isolated, culturally alienated and painfully aware for the first time that he is only one of many good, if not better, players. All this profoundly affects both his confidence as a pitcher and his sense of self, until at last he switches teams and discovers 'something new' on which to found his American dream.

Miguel's coach at the Dominican academy instructs his students to be "totally focused on your final goal", and similarly, the elderly Christian couple who put up Miguel in Iowa declare, "It's our job to keep you healthy and focused on baseball."

No such focus, however, is to be found in Sugar, where baseball, though ever-present, is more the film's background than its subject. For whether they are telling stories about maverick teachers (as in their 2006 feature debut Half Nelson) or underdog sportsmen, writing-directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a knack of taking all the empty inspirational cliches of a genre and turning them back on themselves in unexpected ways. The straight-seeming pitch of Sugar - young man struggles to achieve sporting victory against the odds - turns out to be a treacherous curveball, as Boden and Fleck hit home not with conventional sporting bromides but with a subtle, moving and always unpredictable drama of immigrant experience.

In lesser hands a character like Brad Johnson (Andre Holland), the privileged African-American who has been signed for a million dollars on the same team where Miguel earns $502 a month, and who can always fall back on his Stanford education should baseball fail, would be brought into contrived conflict with the protagonist. However, Boden and Fleck refuse to demonise their characters for the sake of cheap dramatics, and so instead present the relationship between Miguel and Brad as a friendship among unequals, resulting in a nuanced set of comparisons and contrasts that delineate the players and non-players in the exclusive game of American success.

Similarly the relationship that never quite develops between Miguel and his Iowan hosts' evangelical granddaughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield) quietly exposes, through her confusion and his incomprehension, the faultlines in American attitudes to sex, religion and otherness. All this is as understated as the portrayal of the baseball try-outs and matches themselves, shot in such a way that we come to share Miguel's own loss of the ability to understand whether he is doing well or badly.

Perhaps, though, the sequence that best captures his disorientation is a long, dreamy tracking shot filmed over Miguel's shoulder as he walks in a daze through the bar area, videogame parlour and bowling alley of a gaudy hotel where he is staying, unable to focus any more than Andrij Parekh's restless camera on either his noisy surroundings or his direction.

Where Miguel ends up going is in the end where so many immigrants to America have gone before him - and what he finds there is a more grounded kind of hope than the field of American Dreams that he was first seeking, but Boden and Fleck have the good judgement to close their protagonist's sporting adventures not with a sickeningly triumphant Tom Cruise-style rictus, but rather with an ambivalent half-grin that brings a guarded quality to the film's sweet optimism.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Rayniel Rufino, Michael Gaston, Algenis Perez Soto, Richard Bull, José Rijo, Alina Vargas, Jaime Tirelli, Ann Whitney, Ellary Porterfield, Andre Holland
  • Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
  • Writer: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
  • Producer: Jeremy Kipp Walker, Jamie Patricof, Paul Mezey
  • Photographer: Andrij Parekh
  • Composer: Michael Brook

In a nutshell

Naturalistic performances, even-handed characterisation and the utter eschewal of genre cliches ensure that this tale of a stranger in a strange land hits home.

by Anton Bitel

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