Tuesday, June 30, 2009


SUGAR (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2008)

The baseball drama SUGAR draws its title from the nickname of Dominican Republic pitching prospect Miguel Santos (first-time actor Algenis Perez Soto). Sugar is so known because of his fondness for sweet foods, but the moniker could just as well derive from his skill hurling a ball.

Sugar views baseball as his ticket to the United States and the fortune and fame that come with being a Major Leaguer. As is usually true of enormous aspirations, the journey is more complicated than Sugar expects. He earns a spot with a minor league team in Iowa, but rather than rocketing to the big leagues, he struggles with the language barrier, cultural differences, and an injury.

As of this year's Opening Day, Latin Americans accounted for twenty-nine percent of Major League Baseball players, with the majority of them coming from the Dominican Republic. Camps there were recently in the news because of scandals involving player signings and age falsifications. Although SUGAR is not based on any individual's true story, it provides an absorbing look at a baseball pipeline that impacts the game significantly yet is largely unfamiliar to fans.

That reason alone should be sufficient for baseball enthusiasts to make SUGAR a must-see. At a time when sabermetrics break players down into pages of predictive statistics, SUGAR delivers a potent reminder of off-the-field challenges that affect performance on the field. Athletes aren't robots, and this humanizing examination of one immigrant's quest grants greater appreciation for what must be overcome to even have a chance to succeed.

Co-writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck present this fascinating inside baseball tour with empathy and pull out a strong lead performance from Soto, a non-actor who once aspired to follow his character's dreams. Because Sugar comes to the U.S. with very limited knowledge of English and lacks a confidante, Soto must convey much of what he thinks and feels without speaking.

To baseball fans most farm system players, especially non-natives, are voiceless and faceless. Their names may be bandied about as they work through the system, but tales of these roster fillers' ups and downs mostly go untold. For a moment SUGAR borrows the spotlight for one of these commonplace but ignored stories.

Grade: A-

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