Dir/scr: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. US. 2008. 117mins
In a word, Sugar is extraordinary. The second feature of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden deepens the promise and talent they exhibited on their debut Half Nelson. A singular examination of sports, class and the American social fabric refracted through the perspective of a gifted young Dominican baseball player, Sugar has a novelistic density and formal precision that immediately marks these very talented directors as major figures of American cinema.
On Half Nelson, Fleck had the director's credit, and he and Boden wrote the screenplay. Here they share writing and directing credit, and their achievement is clearly the leading contender for Sundance grand jury prize. The movie has almost no antecedent in recent US movies. The subject is baseball, specifically chronicling the adventures, emotion and achievements of a mercurial and gifted young pitching prospect named Miguel Santos (Soto). On the surface, the movie evokes Ron Shelton's marvelous comedy Bull Durham. The real comparison is probably the superb three-hour high school basketball documentary Hoop Dreams.
HBO Films financed the somewhat unorthodox project and they are also selling the film. The movie certainly represents a challenge, but the high technical achievement, the amazing quality and authenticity of the mostly non-professional actors and the emotionally resonant material is bound to strike a chord. The US distributor also has the unique opportunity to synchronize the film's theatrical release through both sports and entertainment media platforms. With the exception of Japan and Korea, baseball is not followed much outside of North America and Latin America. Even so, leading European film festivals are likely to aggressively seek this movie.
The small Caribbean island of the Dominican Republican has produced some of the best baseball talent in Major League Baseball, marking it a highly coveted recruiting zone for US baseball teams. In the US system, top prospects are signed and developed in 'minor leagues', like the kind Shelton wrote about. Structurally, the movie is shaped in three movements, opening in the small village where Sugar is discovered by an US scout and then flown to Arizona, where his play merits him being sent to the Kansas City minor team in rural Iowa.
There he lives with his sponsors (Whitney and Bull) and works hard to assimilate. Culturally isolated and socially trapped, he tries vainly to fit in though his lack of English makes even the smallest of acts maddeningly difficult. Lonely he struggles to find some emotional connections off the field, most prominently the pretty granddaughter (Porterfield) of his sponsors. She awkwardly rejects his romantic interest, further leaving him adrift.
Making matters worse, his performance on the field, aggravated by an injury, begins to suffer. In the high stakes world of minor league baseball, players that don't perform often are subject to being cut, or losing their jobs, the situation that engulfs Sugar's best friend (Rufino). The arrival of another Dominican pitcher (Garcia) whose play overshadows Sugar occasions the movie's final movement.
Martin Scorsese once called Raging Bull a 'documentary with actors'. Sugar feels very similar. Boden and Fleck's documentary background enlivens the material. They illustrate the cultural and social milieu Sugar is part of, particularly the role of evangelical religion. In one remarkable camera movement, they stage a long tracking shot that follows Sugar move through a series of intertwined bars and adjacent rooms that provides a haunting reminder of his acute dislocation and emotional removal from his surroundings. It allows a strong, direct byway to imagine his situation that helps colour and understand his behaviour.
The two talented film-makers constantly subvert expectation, allowing situation, character and study to develop organically and naturally. They are also excellent in miniature, allowing small, sharply drawn characters to share the stage with their protagonist. Soto is a baseball player. His lack of technical training provides a bracing immediacy and ability to understand his frustrations, anger, excitement and profound sense of discovery. All of it makes Sugar a transporting experience.
Production company/international sales
HBO Films (US)
Jeremy Kipp Walker
Algenis Perez Soto
Kelvin Leonardo Garcia