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A Perceptive Character Study

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writing, directing, and producing duo whose first film, Half-Nelson, justifiably received critical acclaim, are back with their second film, Sugar, another character study, this time focusing on a Dominican baseball player’s experiences in the United States minor leagues and the personal and professional problems he encounters as he attempts to become a major leaguer. Infused with the attention to psychological detail and socio-cultural context that made [b[Half-Nelson worthwhile, Sugar thankfully avoids the “sophomore jinx”.

Sugar centers on Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a Dominican baseball pitcher who lives and trains at a baseball academy that feeds American baseball teams with Dominican talent. Santos’ mother, younger sister, and younger brother look to him and his hoped-for success in the U.S. major leagues to help them escape their materially impoverished lives. With family and personal expectations high, Santos takes refuge in the company of the other players at the academy. After an American baseball scout shows him a new pitch, Santos rises quickly to become one of the academy’s better pitchers. Almost immediately, he’s asked to join training camp for the Kansas City Royals and from there, the A-level minor league (there’s A- AA- and AAA-levels below the major leagues). With the exception of a handful of baseball-related English phrases (e.g., “fly ball,” “home run,” “I got it”), Santos and the other players are given little preparation for the American leagues.

In the United States (Iowa, to be exact), Santos moves in with a “host” family, Helen (Ann Whitney) and Earl Higgins (Richard Bull). Santos struggles to communicate with Helen and Earl, who speak a smattering of badly accented Spanish. Helen and Earl’s granddaughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield), shows some interest in Santos, but the language, cultural, and religious differences (she’s a practicing Protestant, while he's a non-practicing Catholic), stand in the way of anything but a tentative relationship. Santos initially does better in the rookie league. With a Dominican acquaintance on the team, Jorge Ramirez (Rayniel Rufino), to guide him through the intricacies of minor league life, Santos seems set for rapid advancement. In rapid succession, however, the team releases Jorge, calls up another pitcher, Salvador (Kelvin Leonardo Garcia), and Santos’ injures his ankle.

While, at least superficially, Sugar reflects Boden and Fleck’s interest in crafting perceptive, insightful character studies they began with their first film. Sugar also reflects Boden and Fleck’s interest in expanding their comfort zone beyond their native Brooklyn (where Half-Nelson was set) to depicting the experiences of Dominican baseball players in the United States and the exploitative, arbitrary system that controls their professional fates, a subject unfamiliar to most American moviegoers or even casual baseball fans. Sugar is both particular, in its depiction of Santos’ personal journey through a minor league season and universal, in that it reflects the aspirations of immigrants, legal or otherwise, to the United States for presumably better economic prospects.

Filmed with both Spanish-speaking actors (for the baseball players) and English-speaking actors (for everyone else), Sugar is unlikely to appeal to non-arthouse audiences or moviegoers who don’t share Boden and Fleck’s interest in baseball. Limited appeal aside, Boden and Fleck have managed to obtain strong, naturalistic performances from their cast of relative unknowns, including first-time actor Algenis Perez Soto, whose expressive face Boden and Fleck rely on repeatedly to show Santos’ inner struggle with the self-doubt, the isolation, and the alienation that have come to define Santos’ experiences in the United States.