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Movie Review: Sugar

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Dir: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
Algenis Perez Soto, Karl Bury, Michael Gasto

While there have been many movies made about baseball, it seems like the vast majority - at least, of those to get any kind of distribution here - have focused on it from an American perspective. Which is only part of the story, given that about 30% of major-league players last year were born outside the United States. Sugar breaks that pattern, centering on Miguel, a prospect from the Dominican Republic (Soto), whom everyone but his mother calls 'Sugar', and who gets his big chance to make it with the "Kansas City Knights". However, despite the title, this is not a saccharine confection, with Sugar discovering talent alone is not enough to make it to the big leagues.

Sugar trailer

The film starts off in the Dominican academy of the Knights, where Sugar is just one of many potential recruits living in what could be called baseball boot-camp, with curfews and compulsory English classes, where the players chant in unison, "I got it!" and "Line-drive." It's a source increasingly providing baseball's ethnic players, much to the dislike of Torii Hunter, who said "It's like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It's like, 'Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips'." Certainly - and the film doesn't pretend otherwise - they can be signed at a fraction of the cost of US college graduates: Sugar costs the Knights fifteen thousand dollars.

Despite an evening of alcoholic over-indulgence, he gets the call to major-league training-camp, which is a whole different world, of hotel mini-bars and diners, where he orders French toast, because that's the only thing he knows how to say. However, at least there is a solid support network of his countrymen and other Hispanic players there. When he has proven himself, he is assigned to Single-A Iowa, and assigned to stay with a 'foster' family who are just about as far removed from Sugar's Dominican roots as could possibly have been engineered: they mean well, but the language and cultural barriers are immense.

The sense of isolation imposed on Sugar is huge, and the film's strongest suit: you feel complete empathy for his situation, and it has changed forever the way I view foreign minor-league players. As a result, when he drops into one of those slumps which every player goes through, he has no-one to lean on, and spirals down to the point where he simply walks away from the team. Unfortunately, it's at this point that the film loses its unique identity. Without the baseball element, it becomes just another film about an immigrant trying to find his place in society: he finds his way to New York, in search of his best friend, who was previously cut by the team. I suppose it's okay in itself, but it comes across more as a PBS special on Dominican immigrant cultural, largely lacking any kind of narrative drive.

There's a coda that possibly hints at a Clay Zavada-esque return to the game - a man whose career was similarly derailed early on by issues outside the lines - but I get the feeling that the directors are perhaps not baseball fans, but are simply using the game as a backdrop. They are certainly not baseball movie fans: Fleck said, "We studied all the baseball films in preparation for this, and there are not a lot of good ones," a sentiment with which I completely disagree - there are more good movies about baseball than any other sport, I'd say. The problem here is that Sugar is basically a failure, which may be 'realistic', but does not make for good cinema: people who face adversity and overcome it, are intrinsically more interesting than those who face adversity and run away from it.

From an Arizona standpoint there are some interesting sidelights, particularly at the beginning when Sugar goes through spring training in the Cactus League. He makes his debut at what appears to be Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and the end credits thank not just the Arizona Diamondbacks, but AJ Hinch (at the time, our farm director) and Junior Noboa, who has been in charge of the team's Latin American Operations since 2003. It's certainly worth a look, and deserves credit for roundly rejecting the usual sports movie cliches, involving championship games, etc. However, these things are cliches precisely because they work, and while interesting, Sugar contains nothing of emotional resonance to match, say, Field of Dreams, The Natural, or even Bull Durham.

[Sugar is currently playing on HBO, and is also available on DVD. soco also reviewed the movie, when it played in Phoenix theatrically last May. I carefully avoided re-reading his review until I'd finished writing mine!]