In this carefully observed and impressively minimalist movie, Sugar redefines and refines his art.


Director: Ryan Fleck
Cast: Algenis Pérez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jaime Tirelli, José Rijo, Ann Whitney
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Display Artist: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2009-06-05 (General release)
US Release Date: 2009-04-03 (Limited release)

"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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.