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Sugar (2009)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"There Is No Equal"
5 stars

As anyone who has seen more than their fair share of sports-related movies over the years could tell you, such films generally fall into one of two categories--those in which everything revolves around a big game or match in the final reel and those that don’t. If you decided to make out a list of the best sports-related movies--mine would include the likes of “Raging Bull,” “The Bad News Bears,” “Bull Durham” and “Slap Shot”--I think you’ll discover that most of your selected titles are ones that fall into the latter category. This isn’t to say that you can’t make a good Big Game movie--I revere the likes of “Rocky” and “Caddyshack” as much as anyone else--but the other type is usually more interesting because they tend to focus on the characters and what they are going through instead of simply focusing on whether they will score the last-second goal or knock out their opponent in the 15th round after being beaten to a pulp in the earlier ones. For example, the original “The Bad News Bears” was less interested in showing a bunch of misfits triumphing on the field as it was in giving viewers both a colorful collection of characters and a caustic and satiric look at the milieu of Little League in which the kids are prodded to play like adults by grown-ups acting for the most part like petulant little brats. On the other hand, the dozens of knock-offs of that film that have emerged over the years have eschewed all the social commentary in order to show us a bunch of misfits triumphing on the field. Yes, there are pleasures to be had from one of those films but if you had to choose between seeing one of them or “The Bad News Bears” right now, which one would you pick? The new baseball-themed film “Sugar” is one that falls squarely into the character-based camp and is all the better for it--so much so, in fact, that I would happily claim it to be the best sports film to come along in a long time not named “The Wrestler.”

Over the last couple of decades, thanks to the success of people like Sammy Sosa, the Dominican Republic has become a hotbed for finding and cultivating potential star players who can be sent north to play in the major leagues--some have remarked that this now rivals sugar as the country’s chief export--and “Sugar” follows the ups and downs faced by one such prospect. He is Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a 19-year-old boy brimming with confidence, a charming disposition and a killer curveball. His abilities are quickly noticed by the reps for the Kansas City team that he is working out with and before long, he is sent up to Arizona for spring training and while his new surroundings are a bit of a shock to him (his diet for a while consists almost entirely of French toast because it is the only thing he can order at the local diner), they don’t rattle him on the mound and he is soon sent to Bridgetown, Iowa for to play for the club’s Single-A team. At first, things go well for Sugar--he rooms with an elderly farm couple whose vague cluelessness about his culture (there is much drama about his potential reaction to the plate of meat loaf placed in front of him at dinner) is balanced by their genuine love of the game and their desire to see him succeed and makes friends with a couple of fellow players (another hot prospect and a vet literally on his last legs) who help to keep him ground while acclimating him to his new world--and it appears that he may actually make it to the big leagues after all.

Before long, however, things begin to turn for Sugar both personally and professionally. Despite the support of his two fellow players, he still feels a sense of dislocation in his new country and when they are shipped off to their respective destinies, Sugar is left alone and feeling more and more isolated. He develops a crush on the granddaughter of his hosts but misreads her friendliness for romantic interest in ways that leave him feeling frustrated and upset (exacerbated, not doubt, by the relative lack of Spanish-speaking women in Bridgetown. Professionally, he is hit with a minor injury that lands him on the bench and when he comes back, his pitching is nowhere near as steady as it had been. Adding to Sugar’s pressures is the arrival of a new pitcher who quickly becomes the team’s new hotshot even as he struggles to emerge from his slump. What happens from this point is something that I will leave for you to discover except to note that Sugar makes a surprising choice that changes the course of both his baseball career and his entire life.

“Sugar” was written and directed by the team of Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, whose previous effort was the 2006 sleeper hit “Half Nelson.” I didn’t much care for that movie at the time that I saw it but based on what they have done here, I may have to go back to it at some point and see if I missed something the first time around. With “Sugar,” they have taken a storyline that could have easily been made into a simple-minded sports movie and have instead transformed it into something far deeper and more meaningful. Instead of trying to goose the story with silly plot twists and a storyline in which, yes, everything hinges on the final game of the season, they have instead chosen a low-key and realistic approach in depicting the realities faced by countless sports hopefuls in Sugar’s situation that is so effective that when I saw the film for the first time, I was actually convinced for the first 10 minutes or so that I was watching an actual documentary. This effect has been aided considerably by their decision to hire an actual baseball player for the central role of Sugar and teach him how to act instead of the other way around--lucky for them, it turns out that Algenis Perez Soto is such a natural in front of the camera that there is never a moment where you might suspect that he was anything other than a gifted actor.

More impressively, they are always defying viewer expectations as to where the story is going at any given moment. We expect, for example, that the farm family will turn out to be monstrous but they are allowed to maintain their humanity throughout--there are a couple of jokes about their uncertain grasp on Sugar’s language but this is more than compensated for in the affecting scene when they try to comfort him after a bad day on the mound. We expect the granddaughter to turn out to be some kind of nasty tease but she turns out to be a nice person who has genuinely misread the situation and tries her best to make things right. We expect that Sugar will recover from his adversity and lead his team to victory and himself to a career in the major leagues but the story then goes off into an unexpected and far more rewarding direction. They even manage to find the absolute perfect note on which to end their story in a deeply satisfying manner without selling it out in the name of cheap uplift--they do it so well, in fact, that I am even willing to forgive them for being the latest filmmakers to include a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the soundtrack.

Because “Sugar” so assiduously avoids the clichés of the sports movie genre and because it prefers to keeps its focus on the human story that it is trying to tell instead of on sequences of on-field fireworks, there is the danger that viewers expecting a standard-issue jock opera will come away from it complaining about the lack of obvious incident and wondering what all the fuss is about. To that, all I can suggest that if all you want from a movie is action and incident, you might be better served going to see “Crank: High Voltage” this weekend. On the other hand, if you are in the mood for a film that enlightens instead of assaults and which offers a thoughtful and provocative new perspective on seemingly familiar material, you owe it to yourself to seek out “Sugar,” whether you are a sports fan or not.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16901&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/17/09 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Traverse City Film Festival 2009 For more in the Traverse City Film Festival 2009 series, click here.

User Comments

9/01/09 paige Brilliant! also saw the doc 'Road to the Big League' about the real story! both wonderful! 4 stars
4/14/09 Ligaya 3 great stories in one: baseball/immigrant/coming of age 5 stars
1/27/08 Eddie P Amazing! Captivating. 5 stars
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  DVD: 01-Sep-2009


  DVD: 01-Sep-2009

Directed by
  Anna Boden
  Ryan Fleck

Written by
  Anna Boden
  Ryan Fleck

  Algenis Perez Soto

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