Sugar Review: Sports clichés and the American dream…but it’s good!

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, and Andre Holland.

In certain places in the world, baseball is king. It’s more than a passionate pasttime or something to do after school; it’s a way of life — a means to escape to a whole new world. In the Dominican Republic, Miguel “Sugar” Santos struggles in a baseball training camp hoping that one day his curve ball will get good enough to move him and his family to America. What Sugar, the new film from Half Nelson co-creators Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, does is asks us is what we would do when our dreams overwhelm us. When it doesn’t quite work out, how do you cope? How do you move on? It makes for a well-told, if somewhat by-the-numbers, sports film that takes an ultimate twist all those Kevin Costner movies never bothered to.

Sugar (played sharply by newcomer Algenis Perez Soto) is young, talented and he loves his mother, so when he gets the inevitable call up to the next rung on the baseball ladder it’s easy to root the aspiring pitcher along. Even if you don’t particularly care about the sport, you can’t help but get invested watching Sugar go through the ranges of adjustment. He’s a fish out of water, a big fish from a small pond confronting a new pool of talent and a third fish analogy that I can’t come up with right now. You see what I’m saying, though. A quick bond is made watching Sugar adjust to a language barrier, house mothers, American girls and being surrounded by really talented ball players that are all fighting for the same positions he is.

It’s at this point that the sports clichés introduce themselves. Some of them are necessary to move the story along but when a struggling Sugar knocks over a water cooler after a frustrating performance and eventually turns to drugs to sharpen his skills, the film was losing me a little. It was odd to see such a well-told story use such conventional ideas to get their point across. Surely they could get there by using themes we haven’t seen a million times before.

Then again, maybe they’ve been used so often because they work so well — or, more likely, because they’re accurate. Sugar offers us a look at how big Baseball really is and how many lives it touches outside the obvious spotlight of the major leagues. In that, I suppose a few tired old clichés isn’t the end of the world — and  just when it seems to be getting trapped in an “underdog sports film” trap, Sugar finds a way to be original, telling a story not about fulfilling your dreams but how to keep going when your dreams aren’t exactly what you expected them to be. The final act of the film is an unexpected and beautiful lesson in figuring out how to make life work for you — how to find a new American Dram when the first one doesn’t work out.

If Sugar has any flaws it’s that it takes place in such a short span of time. We see what could have been a career’s worth of highs, lows, frustration and fear on the pitcher’s mound condensed into one season of ball. It’s hard to connect the range of emotions and decision-making that Sugar goes through in such a short period of time. I guess it’s the jaded critic in me looking for those clichés that wants to see the young pitching stud become a old workhorse before the game beats him, but if Sugar teaches us anything, it’s that life, at any time, can defeat even the best of us.

Sugar is a collection of sports clichés told on fast-forward, but once you make your way past the expected, there’s a sweet little story to be found. It’s one that’s well-performed, very well-shot and perhaps a little too good for its seemingly simple themes.

Sugar opens in the US today — April 3, 2009 — in limited release. A UK release follows on June 5, 2009. It’s rated R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use. You can see the Sugar trailer over at the Apple website.

Joe Dunn is the creator of Joe Loves Crappy Movies, Another Videogame Webcomic, and a thousand other fantastic online comics, as well as one of the co-hosts of The Triple Feature movie podcast.

Posted on April 3, 2009 at 07:00 by Gordon@MovieMakeout · Permalink
In: Reviews

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Gordon McAlpin
    on 2009-04-03 at 08:27

    Thanks for the guest review, Joe!

    I’m pretty excited about Sugar (even though I STILL haven’t seen Half-Nelson). I don’t get hung up on clichés too much when there’s something deeper going on with the movie — used well, they’re like cinematic/storytelling shorthand — and it definitely sounds like that’s the case here.

    You mention the time frame in this, too, and it reminds me of Tom Gilles, a guy I knew from Peoria. After a long spell as a pitcher in the minor leagues, he got kicked up to the Toronto Blue Jays — for about a month. The baseball websites I looked up list his last game as before his debut game, so I think there’s a mistake. In any case, it was less than a full season.

    For one reason or another, after that it was over — I think it was his elbow. I think he stuck around the minors for a while after that; I’m not sure, but within a couple more years, he was a bartender, playing up the Sam Malone thing like you wouldn’t believe (and yes, it worked).

    Baseball has a lot of hard-luck stories like that — far more than it has stories about stars, although that’s all anybody seems to care about — and Sugar’s the first movie that I know of that telling that other side of the story.

  2. Written by Joe
    on 2009-04-03 at 09:06

    Yeah I was very happy to do it. It was a good experience for me in many ways.

    The hard luck angle is a good one. I wish it were used more. I mention the cliches as often as I do because I know it will bother some people. I know people will look for it. and I don;t want that to be the reason people don’t like the movie because there’s so many better things going on.

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