LOS ANGELES – With “Sugar,” writing-directing partners Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have pulled off the kind of miraculous trick Darren Aronofsky did last year with “The Wrestler.”
They’ve taken an overly familiar, potentially cliched sports story, stripped it down and, in doing so, completely reinvented it. Rather than focusing on an athlete past his prime, Boden and Fleck tell the tale of a baseball player on the rise — a subgenre with all its own formulas and expectations.
“Sugar” defies them every time.
No score swells to a crescendo when Dominican pitcher Miguel “Sugar” Santos experiences his first triumph on the mound in the United States. There’s no slo-mo of the ball leaving his hand on a magical summer night and landing with an amplified thud in the catcher’s mitt. Even the obligatory training montage feels different, accompanied by a song from TV on the Radio.
Instead, you get pure, intimate and – above all – honest storytelling, the same approach they took with their outstanding 2006 debut, “Half Nelson.” It’s so fundamental and compelling, it makes you wonder why more filmmakers don’t jettison the gimmickry and pursue such a powerful path. (“Sugar” might seem too slow at times; then again, some complain that baseball itself is too slow. They’re the ones on whom the intricacies of throwing a knuckle curve, Sugar’s toughest pitch, will be lost.)
It’s also surprising that, given the tremendous influence of Latin players – and especially superstars from the Dominican Republic like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez – we’ve seen very little of this element of the game depicted on screen before. “Sugar” is a baseball story but it’s also about the hardships of immigration and, more universally, about finding your place in the world.
As the title character, Algenis Perez Soto lets us feel all the enthusiasm and nerves that go along with that journey; being a non-actor, his performance always seems natural and realistic.
Sugar is an assured 19-year-old from a poor village. His talent and hard work take him from a local baseball academy to a Single-A team in Iowa. (“Donde esta I-A?” he asks when he sees his name next to the state’s postal code.) It’s not Yankee Stadium, where he dreams of pitching someday – his favorite player is the team’s second baseman, fellow Dominican Robinson Cano – but it’s a start.
There he lives on a farm with Helen and Earl Higgins (Anne Whitney and Richard Bull), elderly baseball junkies who’ve been opening their home to minor leaguers for years. And this is one of the loveliest parts of “Sugar”: the way Boden and Fleck treat the Midwest, and its residents, without any camp or condescension. The people who surround Sugar are warm and decent. They love the sport and they want to see him succeed – even the Higgins’ teenage granddaughter, who invites him to her Christian youth group but gives him mixed signals about her true intentions.
A fish out of water, he struggles to assimilate and learn English, even with the help of a stud shortstop from Stanford (the charismatic Andre Holland) who guides him through American pop culture. Still, Sugar’s seemingly unshakable faith in himself – like his pitching ability – slowly fades.
To tell you what happens to him from here would be a tremendous disservice. We’ll just say that, refreshingly, nothing about it is sickly sweet.
Rating: R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Length: 114 minutes
Playing at: Opens Friday at the Loft Cinema