Thursday, September 10, 2009
The first thing that you can take away from Sugar, whether you like it or not, is that the face of baseball really has changed. America's "national pastime," the biggest names in the game now are Japanese, or Puerto Rican. Of these This of course has been the case for over a decade, but American cinema has finally gotten around to addressing this shift. Sugar is a wonderful combination of the sport film and the "Immigrant looking for the American Dream" genres, one that traces the biggest stars back to their hometowns, where baseball is more a way a life than any American city I've ever visited.
The film's titular character, né Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), is a pitcher trying out with dozens of other hopefuls at a camp where American scouts come to pinch the next major player. The competition is fierce, but the famial closeness of the community spawn friendly bonds. During breaks, the players all joke with one another and trade innocent insults. The camp also offers English lessons, in which the teachers hilariously teach them phrases that an American star would have to know to deal with sports reporters. "It must be my mechanic," they repeat when asked a hypothetical question criticizing their performance on the field.
The whole experience seems like an adult version of the baseball camp I went to as a kid, but there's a darker edge running underneath it. For Sugar and many of the other players, making the big leagues, or even the minors, is a pathway out of poverty. The effect of Sugar leaving that pristine, well-kept baseball academy -- one that looks indistinguishable from any American field -- and stepping into urban squalor is truly jarring. Miguel grew up in the shadow of the field, a place that might as well be magical, for it launches a lucky few into a fairy tale life of luxury and fame. He's clearly the best player there (and he has the ego to prove it), and soon a scout snatches him up and signs him up to play for the Swing in Iowa.
Sugar sets its protagonists on a slow journey to the top but, as with so many great genre films, the genre aspect of the film isn't half as interesting as what it's saying. Miguel must leave his family for the first time to go to America, hoping that success will allow him to bring them to the States with him. But the minor leagues offer not packed stadiums but sparsely populated fields; the games he plays in Iowa have more a high school game turnout than one for paid professionals. His difficulty with English is a constant setback, only furthering his sense of alienation from this strange new world. The elderly, baseball-loving family that takes him in is kind, but writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck stumble a bit by telling us that this couple have housed numerous up-and-comers from Spanish-speaking countries, yet they don't know a word. He grows attracted to a sweet, pretty young lady in town, but she ultimately rejects him.
That rejection, coupled with his feelings of isolation, are exacerbated when his friend Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), the only other Dominican on the team and his biggest source of help in interacting with Americans, is dropped from the roster after a devastating knee injury. An injury of Miguel's own sidelines his playing, and before he can recover an old peer, Salvador, rises up from the Dominican Republic as Miguel's game worsens. At last, he takes a bus to New York to seek out his friend, as well as to give the American Dream one last shot (because where else to fulfill it than New York?).
Boden and Fleck created the much-lauded Half Nelson, and their deft hand at characterization informs Sugar as well. But as directors they still have some growing to do. The film is based upon the slow evolution of Miguel's plight in America, which the writing paces perfectly, but too many scenes simply come to a halt before another one starts because the filmmakers didn't know how to transition between them. Bits like the foster family-like elders not bothering to learn any Spanish in the years that they've housed foreign players are clearly meant to establish the mood, yet it just smacks of lazy writing when those characters needn't have been set up in a way that betrayed such a glaring flaw.
Nevertheless, watching the film, I was reminded both of Herzog's Stroszek -- there are plenty of other immigrant movies this can conjure, but I tend to have Herzog on the brain anyway -- and Steve James' documentary Hoop Dreams. Boden and Fleck subtly and wonderfully contrast the effect baseball has on the poverty-stricken Dominican community and the rural town in Iowa, gently bringing out the way these people truly need baseball in their lives. A sports film typically ends in triumph or in the cold rejection of fame's false promise. Amazingly, Sugar ends in an entirely different way: Boden and Fleck do not fall into the facile trap of the Hollywood ending, but they don't run in the other direction just to be edgy. No, there's a touching optimism in its ending that manages to consolidate the character's numerous setbacks into a faint glimmer of hope and happiness.