Nineteen-year-old Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), one of the hot baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic, has a knuckle curveball that is a thing of beauty. Watching him pitch in his small village outside San Pedro de Macorís, you can understand why he loves what he does and why he and his family are banking on a professional baseball career up north.
The stage is set for a rags-to-riches odyssey of inspirationalism. But "Sugar," written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is more emotionally nuanced than that. This is a movie not about the fulfillment of one's dreams but about what happens when those dreams are deferred.
Boden and Fleck, whose previous feature was the acclaimed "Half Nelson," recruited their cast from among Dominican baseball players with little or no acting experience. This was a wise decision. No doubt it's easier to teach a ballplayer to act than vice versa. The young athletes in "Sugar" have an unforced exhilaration on the baseball diamond that can't be faked, and their acting, free of the studiousness of trained performers, has a natural ease, too. Soto at times has a blank, closed-off quality, but this is entirely in keeping with Sugar's life situation as he moves from the jubilation of his Dominican homeland to the US, where he suddenly finds himself a stranger in a strange land.
After a brief and stunning spring training appearance in Arizona, Sugar's curveball takes him to a Single-A minor league team in Bridgetown, Iowa, where he is put up by a doting elderly farm couple who every spring host up-and-coming baseball prospects. Completely at sea in this white-bread community, and with barely any knowledge of English, Sugar feels the gnaw of homesickness. The affection shown him by the couple's daughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield), who tries to interest him in the local religious youth club, only further confuses him. His sole companion is Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), a player from his hometown whose injuries have kept him sidelined.
Boden and Fleck both started out making documentaries, and "Sugar" is studded with marvelously offhand, naturalistic observations. In Arizona, for example, Sugar orders only French toast from the local diner because he can't understand anything else on the menu. In Iowa, the Dominican players dancing with white girls are rousted by local boys. It is, for many of these players, their first overt exposure to racism, and we can see what it does to them inside.
In the high-stakes minor-league world, an injury can be catastrophic – it knocks you out of contention while the next phenomenon steps in to take your place. This is more or less what happens to Sugar, who sees his chances for a pro career dim and can't comprehend what is happening to him.
We are accustomed to baseball movies in which the rough-and-tumble of the sport is glorified or spoofed, sometimes both at once. ("Bull Durham" is the classic example.) We are not used to something like "Sugar," which uses baseball as a crucible for something else entirely: a way of looking at the wages of defeat.
As the film plays out its melancholy story, we realize that what we are watching is far rarer than the usual sports flick. I mentioned earlier that “Sugar” lacked the genre’s usual dose of inspirationalism, but the film is inspirational in quite another sense. It shows us how life doesn’t always play out in the rah-rah way that it does in the ballpark. Sugar may not be the baseball phenomenon of his dreams but the hard knocks he accumulates in the course of the movie ultimately bring forth in this callow kid a kind of wisdom. They make him a man. Grade: A (Rated R for language, some sexuality, and brief drug use.)