Writer-director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck follow up their 2006 debut Half Nelson with Sugar, a similarly intense character study but featuring seemingly much different subject matter. While Half Nelson centered on a drug-addicted elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, Sugar follows a baseball player from the Dominican Republic and his transition to a minor league team in Iowa.
Algenis Perez Soto, in his debut performance, stars as Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a pitcher with a 95 mph arm. The film begins in an impoverished town in the Dominican Republic where career prospects are limited but a strong sense of community pervades. Sugar plays baseball at the Kansas City Knights’ training academy where the local players showcase their skills for US scouts and receive English classes teaching them to say “line drive” and “I’ll do my best” but not how to order breakfast at a diner.
Sugar soon gets recruited to play for the squad’s single-A team and is shipped off to Iowa. There he’s faced with the constant pressure of the situation, as a coach reminded them in the Dominican Republic: “Life gives you lots of opportunities. Baseball only gives you one.” Understanding very little English and confused by the Midwestern culture, Sugar feels adrift in his new existence. At one point, a single tracking shot follows Sugar from his hotel room, through a restaurant, past an arcade and finally into a bowling alley, masterfully visualizing his sense of isolation amidst the blurry neon hubbub of his surroundings.
The remarkable tracking shot is indicative of the crew’s tremendous location scouting. From the Dominican Republic to Iowa to the outer boroughs of New York City, Sugar displays a palpable sense of location. Each shot is exquisitely captured and the film looks stunning, especially considering its meager budget. And yet the glossy imagery never jars with the gritty naturalism of the story (see A.O. Scott’s piece on neo-neo-realism in the New York Times, “Neo Neo Realism” 17 March 2009).
Sugar proves that you can make a film that feels stirringly real without losing sight of the cinematic aesthetic; the filmmakers thankfully avoid shaky cams and low-grade film stock. Even without using documentary conventions (except briefly at the end in a moment that recalls Half Nelson), it’s easy to mistake the film for actual events as it rarely feels like you’re watching actors and the plot progression is never far-fetched.
I consider Half Nelson to be the best film of 2006 and as such Sugar was one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2009. Upon my first viewing, I spent much of the first half bewildered as to how these young filmmakers had ever decided upon this intimate baseball saga as their next film. Then the film’s final third began (with a plot development that may alienate baseball fans and conservatives) and I was able to more easily speculate as to the filmmakers’ access point to the character.
Baseball plays a predominant role in the film, of course, but the interest is rooted in the personal experience of the lead character. In that respect it’s quite similar to Half Nelson as both films take long, hard looks at people who normally receive very little consideration – both in film and in real life. With even the briefest consideration of the film’s extensive plotting you can tell that Sugar is an incredibly well-researched and keenly observed film. The film doesn’t quite match the raw power of Half Nelson, but then the scales are a bit uneven by nature as Half Nelson had an electric, incomparable, Oscar-nominated lead performance by Ryan Gosling.
The special features contain two very informative featurettes, both of which further evidence how much time and effort the filmmakers put into representing its characters. Making Sugar: Run the Bases features interviews with the cast and crew that discuss the approaches and challenges of shooting in so many different locations as well as the emphasis on casting real athletes and amateur actors. Three of the principal cast members, including lead actor Soto, had never been to the United States before they made the film. This featurette is complemented by Casting Sugar which includes Soto’s original audition footage where he discusses his previous job as a hotel receptionist.
Play Béisbol! The Dominican Dream provides further background and statistics on the Dominican Republic’s relationship to baseball, both amateur and professional. It features interviews with MLB heavy hitters like Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa attesting to the veracity of the story. There are also five deleted scenes, three of which are redundant but two are worth watching.
Surprisingly, the film has been re-rated for home video. The theatrical release was rated R but the DVD comes with a sticker advertising it as the PG-13 version. As far as I can tell, the R-rated version is unavailable on home video. As a champion of artistic license I instantly bristled when I saw the ratings change and assumed it was a studio-initiated response to the film’s one-million box office intake.
However, after watching the DVD version I can report that any cuts made to the theatrical version are negligible. The sex scene I assumed would have been cut is still present (although maybe shortened) and the film still contains two f-words. In the end, I think I actually support the ratings change in the hope that it will allow younger baseball fans to take a chance on this intelligent and moving film.
Melancholic and pragmatic, Sugar is not a rousing Saturday night sports movie. But it is a brilliantly executed film that provides insight into a world most viewers rarely think about. As far as sobering sports movies go, Sugar would make a strong double-feature with last year’s The Wrestler, as both films are dedicated to examining the psychology of minor league athletes just outside the spotlight.