Formula reigns supreme when it comes to American sports movies, so when a film goes against the grain and shucks predictable, crowd-pleasing clichés in favor of honesty and authenticity, it's an especially nice surprise. 'Sugar' is that needle in the haystack, the kind of picture that sneaks up on its viewers and takes them on an unexpected yet rewarding journey. On the surface, this quiet, thoughtful chronicle of a Dominican pitcher's pursuit of a major league career possesses all the elements of a classic against-all-odds tale. But directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also co-wrote the original screenplay, steer the story in a different direction, focusing its gaze on the struggles, self-doubt, pressure, fear, and myriad other obstacles athletes must confront and conquer in order to succeed at the highest level. The end result is a penetrating and inspiring character portrait with rare insights into both the mechanics of baseball's unforgiving farm system and the difficulties immigrants face as they try to adjust to a foreign environment and assimilate into a complex society.
Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) earns the nickname Sugar thanks to his sweet knuckle curveball and reputation as a ladies' man. His blazing heater sends his stock soaring at the Kansas City Knights' baseball academy he attends with a host of other young prospects in the Dominican Republic. And like his teammates, Miguel sees the sport as a one-way ticket out of the poverty and squalor that pervade his underdeveloped country. (The cocksure pitcher even tells his girlfriend he plans to buy a Cadillac with his first MLB paycheck.) Big league success seems just around the corner when the Knights tap Miguel for a tryout at their spring training camp in Phoenix, but he's quickly humbled by the first-rate talent the club has assembled. Not yet ready for prime time, Miguel gets shipped off to the Knights' single-A farm team in Bridgetown, Iowa for some much-needed seasoning, and it's there that the impressionable 20-year-old comes to realize he's no longer the golden boy, and learns some tough life lessons.
Fitting in is a daunting task for Miguel, a black man living in the heart of the white-bread Midwest Bible Belt who can't speak more than a few words of English (most of which relate directly to baseball) and is unfamiliar with the customs and culture of his new home. He boards with a kind yet strict elderly couple, and feels the pressure his gruff manager quietly exerts upon him. Miguel knows full well if he doesn't meet the team's expectations – and meet them quick – he'll be back in Santo Domingo hawking stolen goods on a street corner before he knows it.
Much like the authority figures depicted in the film, Boden and Fleck direct 'Sugar' with a sensitive yet firm hand, never sugar-coating the issues Miguel faces or providing him with easy answers. The duo's use of non-actors in key baseball roles enhances realism, and provides a whole new perspective on the minor league experience, where performance is everything, and only the most disciplined and dedicated survive. For a pitcher, one or two bad outings or a minor injury can end a dream before it really begins, and when Miguel realizes how tough it is to stay on top of his game and how many guys are chomping at the bit to take his place, his confidence begins to waver.
'Sugar,' however, is much more than a sports story. With subtle grace, it also examines the plight of poor Hispanic immigrants who try to scratch out an existence in an alien land. Struggling with language, discrimination, a lack of education, and a feeling of disorientation, the young men of 'Sugar' must learn how to play by new rules and adapt to new situations, all while trying to keep ahead of the next guy on the field. The choice to cast Dominican actors and allow them to use their native tongue heightens this sense of insecurity and confusion, and emphasizes the social barriers immigrants must break down.
Soto does a terrific job conveying Miguel's conflicting emotions. His winning smile and easygoing manner make him a magnetic presence, and for an amateur actor, he tackles the demands of the role well. The other unknowns are equally effective, and lend the film extra authenticity and a stronger universal feel.
'Sugar' is sweet but not saccharine, a well-constructed, simply told story laced with wit, heart, and soul. Young athletes of any nationality can learn from this fine film, and the lessons it teaches – perseverance, tolerance, independence – apply to everyone. Though it may not quite knock the ball out of the park, 'Sugar' comes close, and its fresh take on a tired genre deserves some hearty cheers.
'Sugar' benefits from a natural-looking transfer that provides crisp, pleasing visuals, while remaining true to the story's gritty spirit. Too much glamour and gloss would detract from the picture's narrative power, and this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode keeps all its elements properly balanced. Grain levels fluctuate, depending on lighting and camera setup, but a nice film-like feel predominates. Though a few scenes err on the soft side, most enjoy excellent delineation. Colors are bold and well saturated (the Caribbean Sea is especially beautiful), but never look artificial, and the ballpark scenes flaunt all the vibrant hues we expect, from the blue-black uniforms to the lush outfield greens.
Details show up well; beads of sweat glisten on the ballplayers' brows, and skin textures and tones are well rendered. Close-ups often pop off the screen, and great contrast lends wide shots lovely depth and a subtle but distinct dimensionality. Thankfully, noise, banding, and other such annoyances are altogether absent, so we can fully appreciate this smooth, quality presentation.
The Spanish Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is solid but unspectacular. All the audio comes across clearly, with fine fidelity and expansive dynamic range. Not surprisingly, the mix favors the front channels, but surround activity filters in now and then. Bugs and crickets flit about the rears during a summer night scene, and dance tunes enliven the track, adding a sprinkling of faint but welcome bass when the players blow off steam at a local bar. Michael Brook's music score also enjoys good presence and clarity, especially early in the film when it adopts a bouncy Caribbean flavor. Details, though, are rather muted, and the stadium ambience isn't as palpable as one might hope.
If you're not a fan of foreign language films, don't fret. English dialogue abounds, and even when muttered uncertainly by the Dominican players, it's always easy to understand. (Unfortunately, the subtitles don't turn off when English is spoken, which is mildly distracting.) Though the audio may not be as fine as the video, it still serves 'Sugar' well.
For an indie production, 'Sugar' comes well equipped with a few interesting supplements that further flesh out the film and enhance the viewing experience. An audio commentary would have been icing on the cake, but one is not included. All material is in standard definition.
'Sugar' refuses to follow Hollywood's well-worn sports film blueprint and is all the better as a result. This insightful study of self-discovery and assimilation against a baseball backdrop hits the strike zone often enough to merit attention, as well as a recommendation. Solid video, good audio, and a fair array of supplements sweeten the deal for this surprising independent production.
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