"Sugar" is no ordinary sports movie. It's set in the world of baseball, but it's really a humane, bittersweet, beautifully observed drama about hope. Put this one in the Win column.
Algenis Soto is touching as Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a 19-year-old pitching prospect honing his skills in a Dominican Republic baseball camp. Sugar and his fellow hopefuls have a dream: Get discovered by a scout for a U.S. team, move to America, rise to the bigs and sign a multimillion-dollar contract. It's the age-old immigrant dream, in cleated shoes. When he makes it to Yankee Stadium, he tells his girlfriend, he'll buy them a Cadillac. He'll build a new home for his mom. He carries the weight of his entire family's expectations on his athletic shoulders.
Sugar is recruited for spring training in Arizona, then promoted to Iowa's Bridgetown Swing, a Kansas City farm team. He's a natural talent, but baffled by his new environment. He knows "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" by heart but wonders what "Cracker Jack" is.
His halting English is barely enough to communicate with his host family, elderly, baseball-obsessed Mr. and Mrs. Higgins. They welcome the newcomer warmly, yet it's clear that he'll be a swiftly fading memory if he underperforms. The couple's blond, corn-fed daughter offers him mixed messages. She nibbles him with her eyes and invites him to prayer services.
Sugar is an ambitious and talented player, but no superstar. He's a good kid, but no saint. The possibility of failure on the mound or in private life opens before him like a pit widening at his feet. Sports films typically follow their heroes to some definitive victory (occasionally a loss), but co-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden see life in subtler terms than clear-cut wins and losses. Their first film, "Half Nelson," concerned a professionally committed but crack-addicted grade-school teacher; they are enemies of the simplistic.
Sugar's story isn't so much the evolution of his talent on the ball field as the development of his character, the way he copes with his loss of community. When he makes mistakes that imperil his career, you can't help but cringe. Yet those impulsive decisions teach him who he is, and what he really wants from life in the United States.
The film has a wonderful look. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh nails the tropical palette of Sugar's hometown, puts a Norman Rockwell sheen on the Bridgetown ball field, and makes New York bustle and thrill.
Fleck and Boden draw a fine, understated performance out of newcomer Soto. He is mostly assured while playing ball, mostly passive off the field, so naturalistic that he might be a character in a documentary. His story concludes on a note that is not a triumph, but certainly not a defeat. Fleck and Boden know that, Hollywood sports clichés to the contrary, life is a matter of ground balls more than home runs or strikeouts, and Sugar has learned how to play the game.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186