“Get your heads in the game!” This coachly exhortation, so regular and so necessary, introduces the dilemma facing Dominican Republican players trying to get to the States. Urged repeatedly to focus on their work — the labor of playing baseball — they are just as often told to forget their past and their present surroundings or, more insidiously, to “fit in.” To make an minor league team en route to the bigs, long-limbed, wide-eyed young players keep their heads down and keep quiet.
Among the aspirants first glimpsed in Sugar, the 19-year-old pitcher Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Pérez Soto) is charismatic and skilled — this last revealed when a white guy notices him. He needs to put on 20 pounds, the scout says, but the kid’s got something, a knuckle curve and an aptitude. Instructed (in English) to put more “rotation” on the ball, Sugar shows signs of getting it within a pitch or two. The improvement in inexact, the scout concedes, but “these things take time. You’ll figure it out.”
He does figure that out, and along the way, he figures out some other pertinent issues too. While the complicated relationship between Major League Baseball and the Dominican Republic has been in the news lately, with questions arising about immigration, documentation, and scandalous kickbacks, Sugar keeps focused on other ongoing concerns. It’s clear enough that there are good reasons to be selected by the Americans, to go north and send back money to impoverished relatives, Sugar looks as well at the costs of success, the daily negotiations and minor-seeming repressions that reshape the lives of talented athletes. Sugar and his fellows take English classes at the Boca Chica training facility. Preparing for their big chance, they recite the phrases deemed crucial to get along: “I’ll do my best!” and “What is the problem?” they shout in unison, smiling. Sugar sits silently, fingering his baseball. He is working on his “problem.” He means to learn that rotation, to make it out of the DR.
And so he does. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s film follows him to a single-A team in Bridgetown, Iowa, where he’s assigned to live with a host family. Helen (Ann Whitney) and Earl (Richard) Higgins have brought young “foreign” players into their home for years, encouraging their efforts to learn English, tending to their domestic needs, bringing them along to church, and watching them develop at the ballpark. They’re taken by Sugar’s earnest commitment and seriousness. While Sugar is homesick, he keeps focused on his job, which is, eventually, to support everyone with the scads of cash he’ll supposedly make once he’s advanced to the show. To that end, Sugar practices hard and makes sacrifices. “Many of you are thinking about your families and your girlfriends,” the coach instructs the locker room full of newbies. “The only thing you’ve got to think about is yourself. Forget about everything else. Just play.”
And so they do… sort of. Sugar finds himself tempted by the Higgins’ kind, flirtatious, and devout granddaughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield), then surprised by her confusion when it comes to their class, race, and cultural divides. He’s surely a romantic figure, good-looking and, as he says, “sweet,” but he’s also unfathomable, unable to express himself in English, unsure of his status on the team or, more crucially, in the larger franchise. Though Anne is initially drawn to him, she’s also got her own routine and expectations to fulfill: sex with a pretty dark-skinned manchild isn’t precisely part of that plan, as thrilling as it might seem for a brief transgressive moment.
At the same time, Sugar’s confronted by the obscure machinations of his employers, as he and his Dominican teammates bond together as they endeavor to assimilate. They go shopping at the mall, they watch TV (a look at Hurricane Katrina refugees praying in the Superdome affords Sugar a pang of combined recognition and dislocation), and go dancing. Their nearness to white girls makes the local boys anxious, and so Sugar and his friends — including fellow Dominican Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) — re-learn a valuable, if tedious, lesson about their new neighbors’ limits and fears.
Such lessons — understated and often ambiguous — comprise much of the storyline in Sugar. The film also offers a few glimpses of Sugar’s efforts on the field, rendered in more or less familiar strokes (announcers’ narrations and tense close-ups to convey pitcher-batter contests), but these function as set-pieces, something like dance numbers in a musical. The film does well to keep focus, even in the most clichéd scenes, on Sugar’s puzzlement and pains. When at last he finds a mentor who doesn’t have a financial investment in him, the film takes another turn. Osvaldo (Jaime Tirelli) owns a small furniture-making business in the Bronx, where Sugar has journeyed to get a look at Yankee Stadium.
If his ambition and disappointment don’t lead Sugar to quite the place you’d anticipate, based on the film’s seeming generic outlines (sports movie, coming of age plot), he does end up in a satisfying alternative. In this carefully observed and impressively minimalist movie, Sugar redefines and refines his art. His head is at last in another sort of game, more compelling than the one he first imagined.