Directed by: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Cast: Algenis Perez Soto, Andre Holland, Ellary Porterfield, Rayniel Rufino
Running Time: 2 hrs
Release Date: May 1, 2009 (limited)
Plot: This is the story of a young Dominican whose lifelong dream to play in the Major Leagues lands him on a seemingly smooth path to realizing his destiny. There proves to be more than perfecting the knuckle-curve in landing a spot on a Big League roster as an array of pitfalls routinely bludgeons his attempts to achieve the greatness he so aspires to realize. A coming-of-age story that dabbles in the temptations young people come across upon their difficult paths to greatness.
Who’s It For?: Baseball fans young and old. This is a slick reminder that the third world not only wields a superior slew of ballplayers, but also encases these young men in baseball-only “schools” that MLB teams pluck from on an everyday basis. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the amount of pressure the families of these young men put on them to become the next Manny or Pedro. The alluring possibility of another rags-to-riches tale where one child’s game can change their lives completely.
Expectations: Sort of a Hollywood-ized Hoop Dreams, in a sense. Many of the young men portraying potential big leaguers are trying to do so in their own lives. The question of whether or not the authenticity of the film would suffer from lack of acting-chops has arisen, but if anybody knows the hardships of trial by error, it’s nineteen-year-old baseball prospects from The Dominican Republic.
Algenis Perez Soto as Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos: You can’t teach a young man to depict a young man in similar shoes. This is a daring, outlandishly difficult task. During a shoot, there are hundreds of on-set assistants setting up shots, giving orders, and making authentically all but impossible. You have really got to “have it” to ably portray a genuine character onscreen. Soto is mesmerizing as a broken-English-speaking pitcher from the slums of the D.R. While he doesn’t necessarily wield a heart of gold at the film’s outset, the lessons he learns can be read on his young face, and his actions become a visually poetic ode to the ethical values a young man can jeopardize without even thinking about it. In essence, acting shouldn’t merely be a full-on attempt at mimicking an ordinary person. Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos is a very real, troubled young man whose forced to grow up faster than he’d prefer to. The cinematic result of a character so believable makes it a wonder Soto had no previous onscreen experience.
Andre Holland as Brad Johnson: This guy is a theater-trained actor, and it brings up an interesting onscreen-juxtaposition. ‘Sugar’ barely speaks a lick of English, and Johnson, a fellow-blue-chip prospect from Stanford is a highly educated wunderkind of a second baseman who whole-heartily embraces Santos’ turtle-slow assimilation into American culture. Had Johnson not been a celebrated young actor in reality, this dynamic would not have hit as hard. It’s a nice touch that provides one of the film’s many side-stories in a beatific manner than earns laughs without breaching unnecessary hilarity, and garners sympathy without ravaging the tear-ducts too forcefully.
Ellary Porterfield as Anne Higgins: Porterfield dresses down to portray the Jesus-freak daughter of Soto’s farmland host family. It is a trained depiction of a teen whose religious fervor overshadows the raging hormones that linger beneath even the cleanest of youths. Though she does nothing to revolutionize the genre of her character, she’s likable enough to convince us she struggles weighing her options between taking the hand of God, and talking the hand of ‘Sugar.’
Rayniel Rufino as Jorge Ramirez: Ah, the best friend. There is little explanation regarding the relationship of ‘Sugar’ and Ramirez, but it’s apparent they are fellow countrymen who know the stakes that go along with trying to make it as a pro ballplayer miles and cultures away from home. These two partake in the most realistic onscreen conversations, if not the most moving. Their interactions are laden with subtext about the inevitable failure their attempts will likely realize. It’s a nice bit of icing on the sugary-cake the film becomes through interactions like these.
Talking: A nice mixture of Spanish and English, with neither dominating the screen time. Some of the funniest, warmest moments include interactions between ‘Sugar’ and his Iowa host family. To say a “language barrier” exists between them is the understatement of the young millennium.
Sights A nice dichotomy of backdrops. The film opens in the poverty-stricken Dominican Republic. As ‘Sugar’ and his teammates progress to the United States the culture-shock they experiences is painted visually as we follow them on buses, and into restaurants in a country they’ve never seen, or only seen on dusty small-screens through foggy, stain-laden windows.
Sounds: The silence a pitcher emits from the mound while readying himself for a delivery is aptly depicted throughout the action shots. A nice taste of one of Indie Rock’s greatest bands [TV On The Radio] helps ‘Sugar’ better understand the inspiration his American friend Johnson finds in music.
Best Scene: As a rabid baseball fan, I enjoyed the film’s attention to the realistic detail of intermittent mound visits between ‘Sugar’ and his various assortment of catchers. It’s provides a genuine slew of slow moments amidst a film that forces audience members down a devastatingly downtrodden path of largely inevitable failure and broken dreams. The simplicity of baseball is a positive energy that keeps the largely sour-minded film afloat.
Ending: An impressive ode to realism comes to a head at the film’s anticlimactic conclusion. When you’re trying to tell a story that reveals the sad truth that lingers beneath the glamour of sport, it’s important to keep an Indie Flick as grounded as possible. You won’t leave the theater any happier than you were when you arrived, but that’s the whole point. But rest assured, you won’t feel as though you were lied to in any sense of the word. This is an honest film that brings it’s story home without a shred of fabrication.
Rewatchability: Add it to your DVD, or blu-ray collection as soon as possible. A keeper for fathers and sons who loved Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, and Hotel Rwanda.
OVERALL Baseball is a popular sport that doubles as an acquired taste. Though it’s America’s pastime, there are few people that admit to being able to sit through an entire telecast. Sugar is a film that explores the limits to which baseball and life can test one’s patience. The need for success a young Dominican man can feel is about as difficult a reality as Hollywood could have to explain. This is a movie that examines how failure can actually expose a young man to the success of realizing there may be more to his life than a game he’s played since he could walk. The third world is a difficult region to explore without coming across as exploitative. This film doesn’t glamorize poverty without paying it a debt of allegiance. The reality of low-income hope is about as authentically depicted as a Hollywood film could hope to present. This film is a must see because it isn’t necessarily a baseball movie. What we have here is a movie that explains how life has a tendency to throw a decent curve when you least expect it to.
Final Score: 8/10