“Sugar” is a baseball movie in the way that “Macbeth” is a play about kilts.
The subject of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s lovely character study is Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), who as the film begins is living at the Dominican Republic baseball camp of the fictional Kansas City Knights.
Sugar is a promising pitcher. As it is with other hopefuls attending the camp – which seems part prep school, part penal farm – baseball is about the only way Sugar will avoid a life of mindless labor and economic deprivation.
His sister and widowed mother try not to pressure the kid, but it’s obvious he’s the family’s meal ticket. If he makes it big in American baseball, Sugar will pull them out of poverty.
The sweet-faced youngster travels to the States, where he’s assigned to the Knights’ minor-league club in Dubuque, Iowa. He lives with an elderly farm couple (Ann Whitney, Richard Bull) who are baseball crazy, spewing statistics and dissecting strategies with the insights of veteran coaches. Sugar is only the most recent of the Dominican hopefuls who have shared their home.
It’s a delicate situation for Sugar and his fellow players from Latin America. Yes, he’s getting paid to play ball and is learning plenty of skills along the way. But these young men speak no English and in conversation with the locals nod pleasantly while comprehending little.
Worst of all is the loneliness of living alone in an unfamiliar environment. Missing his girl back in the Dominican Republic, Sugar shows some interest in his hosts’ granddaughter, a freckled teen (Ellary Porterfield) who invites him to join her Christian youth group. But it quickly becomes obvious that he’ll have to do without carnal comforts.
On the mound, our 19-year-old protagonist has moments of blazing success and of demoralizing defeat. He watches as other young players are let go and shipped back to wherever they came from and is quietly terrified that the same fate may await him.
Ultimately “Sugar” isn’t about baseball at all. It’s about the immigrant experience and about economic imperatives; rarely has the need to perform well been so heartbreakingly examined. And along the way it avoids just about every baseball movie cliche.
Holding it all together is Soto, a nonactor who exhibits unnatural self-assurance in front of the camera. As Sugar faces obstacles that defy his best efforts, the movie ceases to be a sports story and gracefully mutates into something else entirely: a transcendent story about finding one’s place in the world.
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