' Cinema Romantico: Sugar

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sugar

In the event of a really good Sports Movie film critics will often trot out a familiar phrase. For instance, if it's a film about baseball they will say, It's not a baseball movie, it's a movie about a baseball player. Yet, that phrase would not even come close to serving "Sugar" justice. "Sugar" is not a baseball movie, it's a movie about a young man who plays baseball. Make sense? Key words: Young Man.

It's a movie that pays no interest to the usual cliches of the genre. In fact, the film does not even relegate itself to the genre. It's something else. Truly. Very early on Manuel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a native of the Dominican Republic, is hanging out with some friends and says how he can throw a 95 MPH fastball. A pal says, big deal, he once threw a 98 MPH fastball when he was up in America playing for a farm team in the minor leagues. Then why, Sugar wonders, are you back here at home selling cellphone chargers on the street. The friend laughs, a little, and then a sad smile skates across his face which gives way to obvious pain. Sugar sees it, too. But they don't say anything. They don't have to. It's obvious but it's not made obvious. I mean, what a moment! And that's what Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's (the writing and directing team that also earned Ryan Gosling an Oscar nod for "Half Nelson") movie does over and over. Nothing is forced, nothing is shoved down your throat, nothing is overdone when it can be so, so understated and graceful.

Sugar is a good hearted, hard throwing pitcher, and a rising star, in a Dominican baseball "academy", set up for the benefit of American Major League baseball teams who can ferret out the best talent and send it off to its various minor league teams in the States. All these players seem grateful for the opportunity despite the rigid lifestyle and all of them harbor big league aspirations, though obviously some are more realistic than others.

Sugar's dream is realistic. He is called up to spring training in Arizona with the Kansas City Knights, the fictional team his academy represents. We see him with his family before he departs and it is clear they believe in him, too. It is also clear how much Sugar cares for his family and how much he does not want to let them down.

Soon after spring training Sugar is assigned to a Single A team in Bridgetown, Iowa. You see him making his arrival, cruising past endless miles of cornfields and I realized that while this sight may always bring a smile to my face, it can bring just as much terror to someone else's.

He stays with an elderly Iowa couple, polite to a fault, and he meets a young girl to whom he might be a little attracted. She takes him to a meeting for Evangelical youths in her basement where he doesn't understand a word. He often doesn't understand what is being said to him. The only English taught at his academy seems to be single words not useful beyond the context of baseball. When his Iowa coach is giving him the usual mumbo jumbo about "controlling your emotions" Sugar dismisses him, in Spanish, with "You talk too fast."

The baseball scenes are handed beautifully, never resorting to grand drama with a booming soundtrack. Most of the moments on the diamond allow only for the sounds of a game, a decision so refreshing that is the only word I can think to use. (There is one montage during the baseball season, yes, but even then the filmmakers have the good sense to score it to a kick ass TV On the Radio song.) He does well. He is injured. He struggles. But these developments are not portrayed in the usual EKG style, shooting from HIGH to LOW and back again. It moves at a real pace and, thus, lets the changes in Sugar and his plight happen naturally.

The movie is as much about a person transplanted to a strange world he does not understand as it is about a specific sport. But, again, Sugar's misunderstandings of his new home are not overdone. This is a movie where the camera often does nothing more than sit back to consider its characters. There are so many small interactions that loom large.

The third act travels to places I did not anticipate in any way. (If you go to movies looking for exactly what you expect, stay far, far away from "Sugar".) I will not discuss them in detail as you deserve to discover them on your own but this is where the true theme begins to emerge and you realize that what you are watching goes far beyond any "knuckle curve" Sugar may have mastered.

Not that "Sugar" belittles the game it so diligently portrays. The end of this movie is absolutely perfect. Remember the Kevin Costner flick "For Love of the Game"? Probably not, and that's probably because the movie failed for two solid hours to ever summarize its own title. But in only about 60 seconds or so the conclusion of "Sugar" takes that other movie's title and says here - right here. This is it.

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