‘Sugar” is an extraordinary movie about an aspiring young baseball player from the Dominican Republic.
If you like and appreciate baseball, you will, I am sure, feel graced by its honest approach and adherence to reality. The bonus elevating the experience into the realm of exceptional drama is its transcendence of the sport itself.
Essentially, “Sugar” is the story of an immigrant teen coming of age in America. He is one sweet, likable kid named Miguel “Sugar” Santos. From one of those villages spawning the talents of Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz, and fancying a nice knuckle curve, Sugar is his mother’s hope and dream.
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, “Sugar” proceeds with deliberation and an engaging intelligence. Chosen with meticulous precision, the boys are real players, and standing conspicuously in the pack is this brooding kid with hound-dog eyes discovered in local tryouts and eventually scooped up by the Kansas City Baseball Academy — one of dozens of kids given a chance in the States. It is a great honor, but at the same time, you don’t have to be an aficionado to acknowledge the odds.
While the movie pays due respect to details of the game, it is smart and brave enough to stay grounded in cultural reality. We are reminded that these are adolescents, alone in a new world, facing language barriers, dealing with the inevitable strains and injuries, eating strange food, and navigating natural attractions to an occasional American girl.
DIRECTED BY Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
SCREENPLAY BY Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
STARRING Algenis Perez Soto, Alina Vargas, Andre Holland, Ann Whitney, Ellary Porterfield, Jaime Tirelli
RUNNING TIME 118 minutes
The filmmakers are not interested in staging a “Bad News Bears” scenario or exploiting ninth-inning heroics. Gradually, they shift their focus to the birth and emergence of an immigrant in a new land.
Meanwhile, we take in Miguel’s first experiences off the field; one sweet one arrives after a kind waitress notes his daily order of French toast. One morning, she arrives with an array of eggs. It’s a gift — the kindness of a stranger — and a genuine feel-good moment. Kind of makes you feel good to be an American.
Miguel makes it to Iowa, where life is not always “Field of Dreams” idyllic. The fans can be as tough as they are knowledgeable; omnipresent are the cultural-religious tensions swirling beneath the surface. There are jealousies of the townies, and those Sunday church maidens who believe these Dominican boys will welcome placid conversion.
“Sugar” does not rush these moments of candor. We like the couple he boards with; they are good people, beautifully played by Ann Whitney and Richard Bull, but assimilation is not always easy. Moreover, Sugar has to contend with some of the peccadillos of his own teammates.
Eventually, Sugar will bear responsibility for his own growth, and here is where the movie soars gently into another dimension. We are now in New York, where he meets a mentor, not a Dominican, but a Puerto Rican, played with a quiet dignity by Jaime Tirelli.
Now, sweetness again, Sugar desires to craft a table for his mother, and sweetness once more when we understand that despite the fracture of the professional baseball dream, these young men will never lose their love for baseball, even as they learn to begin life in a new land.
There is always room for Sunday hardball. May the allure last forever.
“Sugar” is one smart, beautiful movie, and from where I stand, it is an instant classic with the guts and integrity to remain focused on a winning story about a flowering American-immigrant soul.
Reach Gazette film critic Dan DiNicola at [email protected]