Bright Lights, Big Curveball

The remarkable Sugar tells the story of Dominican baseball prodigies in the United States.

Algenís Perez Soto as Miguel in Sugar

More than half of Sugar (Sony Pictures Classics) takes place on the baseball field, but to call it a sports movie would be like labeling The Bicycle Thief a film about cycling. For the film’s hero, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenís Perez Soto), baseball is a means of survival, a ticket out of desperate circumstances. Sugar is a finely observed study of a subcategory of the American immigrant experience: the lives of Dominican baseball prodigies who are spotted by American talent scouts, groomed in the Dominican Republic, and brought to the United States to play on farm teams in the minor leagues.

Sugar is also the second feature from the filmmaking couple Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose first movie was Half Nelson (2007), a quietly harrowing portrait of the friendship between a drug-addicted public school teacher and his troubled student. When Half Nelson was recognized with multiple festival awards and an Oscar nomination for its star, Ryan Gosling, Boden and Fleck were in a position to make whatever movie they wanted. It’s an encouraging sign for the next generation of filmmakers (Boden is 29 years old, Fleck 32) that they chose a project as unusual, and potentially uncommercial, as Sugar.

How uncommercial are we talking? Most of the dialogue in Sugar is in Spanish, and there are long stretches with no dialogue at all, in which the expression on a character’s face or the thwack of a ball on a glove tells us all we need to know. And without giving away too much of the ending, I can say that the movie steers miles clear of the conventional win-one-for-the-Gipper sentimentality of the sports movie. It’s about immigration and acculturation, capitalism and exploitation, hospitality and loneliness.

As the movie opens, 19-year-old “Sugar” Santos—who likes to claim his nickname derives from his skill with the ladies, rather than (as his teammates insist) his predilection for dessert—spends his weeks boarding at an American-run baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, returning to his dirt-poor hometown only on weekends. After mastering a near-unhittable knuckle curve, he’s invited to the States, where, after a stint at a training facility in Arizona, he’s sent to Bridgetown, Iowa, to play for the single-A team there. He boards with an elderly Christian couple, the Higginses, who live on an isolated farm and speak just enough Spanish to forbid chicas and cerveza. After some exquisitely awkward attempts to join the church youth group of the Higginses’ pretty granddaughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield), Sugar resigns himself to socializing only with his Dominican teammates, especially Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), an older player who’s recovering from a knee injury. But when Jorge is cut from the team and moves to New York, Sugar’s sense of alienation becomes almost unbearable and begins to take its toll on his game and his fragile sense of confidence.

The most remarkable thing Sugar does is give American viewers a sense of how our country must seem to a newly arrived immigrant, without caricaturing or condescending to either guest or host. Sugar and his teammates marvel at conveniences such as the hotel minibar and on-demand porn. But straitened by their meager paychecks and nearly nonexistent English, they subsist for weeks on French toast, the only meal on the diner menu whose name they recognize. Seen through the camera of Andrij Parekh (who also shot Half Nelson), the cornfields of Iowa and sterile locker-room interiors of the ball club look as lonesome as moonscapes, an expression of Sugar’s barren interior state. And though the stodgy, baseball-obsessed Higginses couldn’t be more hopeless at reaching out to their miserable boarder, they’re not shown as villains, just decent people with a limited and limiting view of the world.

Algenís Perez Soto, a Dominican native and longtime nonprofessional athlete, has his work cut out for him in this, his first acting role. He not only appears—often by himself—in virtually every scene of the movie, but he’s required to shift gears from cock-of-the-walk bravado to sulky rage to despair to cautious hope. Perez Soto’s infinitely expressive face—not to mention his gorgeous, lanky physique and that mean throwing arm—should open up opportunities that will take him farther than Sugar Santos could have imagined.