Hello folks. Hans back with your weekly dose of Below Radar awesome-ness, looking at film of great potential that just can’t quite execute, Sugar.
I was prepared to love this movie. It’s filmmakers, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, could hardly find a bigger fan than me. Half Nelson, their first feature, was an indie masterpiece of great sincerity and intelligence. It won an Oscar nomination for Ryan Gosling, playing a belleagured, coke-addicted seventh grade teacher, and put the filmmaking couple on the map. Half Nelson dripped with documentary energy, utilizing rough, off-the-cuff handheld to explore a tough human terrain. Their approach paid off well. I’ve seldom seen a more interesting and gritty indie film in the past ten years.
Sugar obviously has more money behind it, and Boden and Fleck use it well, engaging a story that is, in many ways, just as fascinating as Half Nelson‘s. Their chosen topic is the system of Major League Baseball, as they follow young Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) from his home in the Domincan Republic through his successes and failures in the American farm system. It should be stated that Boden and Fleck clearly know their subject, and their concern is not with the game itself, but with the trial by fire that a young immigrant player must go through in pursuit of major league riches and glory, a trial that they understand with great compassion.
The story begins with Sugar (his moniker refers to his sweet curve) at home in the Dominican Republic. He is playing in a “baseball academy” for the Kansas City Knights organization, where young Dominican players are taught the finer points of the big league game. Sugar dreams of his shot in the majors, not in the interest of personal glory, but so that his family, which lives in a small slum apartment, will have money to survive on. Sugar gets his shot: he is sent to a small farming community in Iowa to play for their single A club.
Fleck and Boden are extremely perceptive about the difficulties of a young immigrant player coming to a very new country. The fact that Sugar doesn’t speak the language doesn’t stop his host family from continuing to ask him questions in English. This makes communication with his coaches difficult as well. Sugar starts out the season well, but a midseason injury knocks him off his stride, and he is forced to play hurt. This leads to a move as a relief pitcher. Sugar’s coaches are supportive enough, but he can’t escape the worry of knowing that there are always other young talents ready to take his place.
All of this had me very excited for the first half of the movie, but the film started to repeat itself. Sugar’s stint in Iowa lasts too long, and though the Middle American folks he encounters seem nice enough, Fleck and Boden choose to portray them in rather stereotypical ways. His host family, a nice old couple ( Richard Bull and Anne Whitney), don’t register as much more than the country caricatures you might find in a Crackerbarrel commercial. Their granddaughter (Ellary Porterfield) is given the detail of being an evangelical, which seemed a narrow and shortsighted choice from the filmmakers. Sugar doesn’t know the language and has a hard time assimilating into the culture, but we understand this very early and the continued emphasis on the same problem doesn’t do much to advance the story.
The film is made even more puzzling by its final act. Sugar is fed up with the farm system after his struggles (something that left me without much respect for him) and decides to jump ship and head to New York where he plans to meet up with a former teammate who was released. Once he gets there, he stays in a seedy motel and gets work as a dishwasher. He encounters a Puerto Rican carpenter (Jaime Tirelli) who lets him work in his shop and becomes his friend. Sugar eventually finds his former teammate and they begin to play on another team that is compiled mostly of Spanish speaking players, which makes for a more comfortable situation.
I’m sure Fleck and Boden intended something more complex, but the film ultimately seems to be saying that if the language problem is solved, then Sugar can be happy, which ultimately makes the whole story seem frivolous. Also, the film’s ending confused me. Sugar obviously could have stuck with the minor league club, probably worked at his game more, and then come back for another try at the majors. It bothered me that he gave up so quickly.
Sugar himself is another problem for the film. Algenis Perez Soto, a former ball player making his acting debut, is sympathetic and believable in the role, but he is a colorless center; his face gives us little more than the same blank expression, trapped somewhere in between confusion and anger. I liked Sugar, but I was never sure what Perez Soto was trying to express in the role. His performance also reduces the film to an extremely low energy; I was almost wishing there were more emphasis on the game rather than the same lethargic, repetitive happenings that Boden and Fleck were presenting us with.
The film also doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say about the Major League Baseball system. It smugly oscillates between contempt and uncertainty. Sugar’s journey indicates some distaste for a system they present as nurturing talent and then spitting it out when it has lost all value. But they also give it such a fair shake that we feel some disdain for Sugar when he leaves. The film doesn’t paint baseball as much of anything other than the backdrop for an immigrant story that they also don’t know what to do with. It’s apparently hard for an immigrant to assimilate when they don’t know the language. Very enlightening.
That being said, Boden and Fleck are obviously very talented and have great things ahead of them. Some of the visual flourishes in the film really caught my eye. There is a great steadicam shot of Sugar as he walks from his hotel room to a bowling alley, being confronted by a resturaunt, a casino, an arcade, and various other pieces of American heteroglossia. It is a great representation of Sugar being hit in the face by American culture. I also appreciated the baseball scenes. Fleck and Boden don’t mimic the straightforward compositions they may have seen on ESPN, but add a real intimacy that keeps the viewer in Sugar’s head.
This movie is a swing and a miss. It was made by HBO Films, who may have thought it went along well with a show like Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, where many stories similar to Sugar’s are explored. It feels like they had this great terrain to work on, but weren’t that certain about how to actually make the story as interesting as it could be. But these guys are two great talents to watch. I guarantee their next film will be something special.