Sports is life writ large, the place where everything -- the triumph, the boredom, the despair -- gets magnified and scrutinized. The best films about sports, and the baseball-themed "Sugar" is surely one, understand that when a character says, "it's just a game, right?" the answer is both yes and no.
So though "Sugar" takes place in a setting we haven't seen before, the world of aspiring young players from the Dominican Republic trying to make it in the major leagues, it would be a mistake to think of it as a sports movie. It's a beautifully made film about a young man's journey of self-discovery, about how Miguel "Sugar" Santos makes his way in the world and tries to figure out, as we all do, who he is meant to be.
"Sugar" is as good as it is because of the care and skill writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck bring to it, gifts that were visible in their first film, "Half Nelson," which earned a lead actor Oscar nomination for Ryan Gosling.
Boden (who also edits) and Fleck specialize in unforced reality, in seemingly effortless, quietly emotional films that are dramatic but never melodramatic because they understand that authenticity can be the most compelling material to put on screen.
Made largely in Spanish, "Sugar" begins with the notion that, as one character puts it, "everyone knows Dominicans rule the game." So many baseball professionals come from this impoverished nation (an estimated 15% of major leaguers and 30% of those in the minors) that most professional teams run baseball academies on siteto sign and train young talent.
It's at one of these places, operated by the fictional Kansas City Knights, that we meet Sugar Ramos, a not-quite 20-year-old pitcher who is totally aware, as are most of his compatriots, that, as the saying in his country goes, you can leave the island only two ways: by swinging the bat or by throwing the ball.
That means that the pressures on Sugar, both self-imposed and those put on him by family and friends, are great. With a nickname that comes from his fondness for sweets, he is a determined young man, all business on the field, working on a new curve and participating in surreal "baseball English" classes where phrases like "ground ball" and "home run" are learned by rote.
Algenis Perez Soto, the young man who plays Sugar, is not an actor but a former infielder for Dominican teams who had to train for two months to become a convincing pitcher. With a handsome, sensitive face that can break into something of a Will Smith smile, Perez Soto was cast, Boden has said, because the filmmakers were looking for someone who had "the ability to express themselves without even talking," something he makes look easy.
"Sugar" opens in the Dominican Republic, but it kicks into gear when its namesake leaves the island, first for spring training in Arizona and then for a stint with the minor league Class-A Bridgetown Swing in small-town Iowa, a place so different from the Dominican Republic it might as well be on the far side of the moon.
For though Sugar faces many problems, including a higher level of competition typified by million-dollar bonus baby Brad Johnson (Andre Holland), his greatest difficulty is the enormous cultural gap between his impoverished homeland and the strangeness of this new country typified by the elderly Iowa farm couple who serve as his host family.
It is very much to "Sugar's" credit that the film deals with all this with remarkable fairness. People invariably try to help Sugar rather than sabotage him, and if there is an ogre in the film it is the pressure the system as a whole puts on people, not any of the individual cogs. Still, because we've come to know Sugar as an individual, not a ballplayer, we fear that he'll be eaten alive in this unyielding atmosphere.
"Life gives you many opportunities, baseball gives you only one," a Dominican mentor tells Sugar early on, and the young man eventually discovers the truth of this in ways he doesn't expect. "We put a lot of love into this," Boden said when "Sugar" debuted at Sundance, and this thoughtful, poignant film reflects that love and more.