May 14, 2009

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Sugar (R)
Baseball players from the Dominican Republic attempt to win the lottery that is a spot on a major league American baseball team in Sugar, a smart little indie about getting a slice of the American dream.

Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a phenomenal ballplayer. But he’s only one of several great and potentially great baseball players training for a shot at a spot on a professional team in the U.S. at the Kansas City Knights academy in the Dominican Republic. The money he will make if he achieves his dreams of playing for a team like the Yankees will mean the world to his family. Indeed, for many of the players, just the shot to travel to the U.S. is a life-changer. But it isn’t easy — and new superstars are always coming up behind them.
When Sugar finally does get his shot, he’s sent to a farm team in Iowa. He speaks almost no English when he arrives (he and his fellow Dominican transplants eat French toast for weeks because it’s the first, and for a while, the only dish whose name they know at a diner near their training facility). He stays with an older couple on a farm and experiences encouragement and compassion as well as pressure from them (they clearly take their role as the host of future major-leaguers seriously). He may be a man on the brink of extraordinary fame and fortune but Sugar is also a kid away from home and scared of blowing what may be his one shot at success.

And the alternative to the path that leads to the Yankees is one that leads to the neighborhoods around Yankee stadium. When one of Sugar’s teammates is about to be sent home, he heads instead to New York City and into the difficult life of an undocumented worker (where the burden to take care of family back home remains but is now complicated by the increased demands of finding a place to live and a job that isn’t too concerned with legal status).

Sugar is about what happens when dreams and opportunity meet reality. Meet it, sometimes, like your car meets a guardrail on an icy day. Sugar has talent and he has drive but he also has several things working against him (language, culture, the natural limits of his physical body) and, Slumdog Millionaire aside, even the most determined optimist can find himself thwarted.

Even if you don’t know anything about baseball, you can get into Sugar, sympathize with Sugar’s frustrations and fears. It is a smart movie and it mostly doesn’t try to make big generalized statements about all immigrants, all athletes or all people trying to make it. It gives us Sugar’s story and glimpses at the stories of those around him and as such it is an excellent and engrossing character study. Because of the language barrier between Sugar and many of the Americans around him (but not, thanks to subtitles, between us and Sugar) the movie almost has the feel of a good novella or a short story that doesn’t have firm ending, per se, but does give us a complete picture of a person’s life at that moment. B+

Rated R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use. Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Sugar is an hour and 54 minutes long and is distributed in limited release from Sony Pictures Classics. The movie is scheduled to begin a run at Red River Theatres in Concord on Friday, May 29, which will hold events with Algenis Perez Soto after two of the screenings.