Retroactive Review: Sugar

Algenis Perez Soto plays the role of Miguel "Sugar" Santos  in this fictional baseball movie.

Algenis Perez Soto plays the role of Miguel “Sugar” Santos in this fictional baseball movie.

One of our favorite things as baseball fans is to pick out our national pastime in bits of media — be they in books, songs, TV shows, movies, you  name it. Sometimes, whole bodies of work are dedicated to the subject, or, at least prominently featured in the plot. I’m going to be exploring these works with retroactive reviews here at The Hardball Times over the coming months.

To begin, I chose the highly acclaimed independent film, Sugar, a movie I was only vaguely aware of when it was first released. But, since I’m a big fan of sports-themed movies, particularly baseball, when I came across a copy at a used book/DVD sale, I bought it. Then put it in a drawer for a couple years and promptly forgot about it. It wasn’t until I unearthed the DVD while cleaning out a filing cabinet that I decided to finally give Sugar the attention it deserved.

Sugar, though it’s a story about a talented young Dominican baseball player getting lost in an unfamiliar world, is an authentically American story. Yes, it’s yet another take on the American Dream, and we’ve had a lot of those over the years, but Sugar manages to be both totally familiar and completely new. It’s also a delightful, somewhat subversive sports tale about the immigrant experience made for an American audience.

We Americans are a funny sort. We rapaciously devour books and films that chronicle the subject of the American Dream, but what we really seem to like the most is the fractured American Dream. The corrupted American Dream. This fascination with our own failings has made for some compelling movie moments, and Sugar is a welcome addition. This movie fits in far better with movies like The Graduate, American Beauty and The Great Gatsby than fellow baseball movies like Major League and Bull Durham.

Sugar movie poster_200It would be much too easy to pigeonhole and dismiss the critically acclaimed Sugar—which sports a 92 percent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes websiteas “just” a sports story and put it out of your mind, but this film is much more than that. It is a sports tale, but it’s also universal. It’s a coming-of-age tale, an immigrant story, and, yes, a story of an American Dream lost—and found.

The movie opens up in the Dominican Republic, at the camp of a fictional Kansas City major league  team’s baseball academy. The movie quickly introduces us to a talented young pitcher named Miguel “Sugar” Santos. Sugar is taught a “spike curve” by one of the team’s coaches and he quickly develops it into his go-to pitch. The young phenom catches the attention of coaches and signs a contract with an invitation to spring training. Sugar faces the pressure of knowing his family members are counting on his success to pull them out of poverty.

Everything goes well at first, though the cracks appear almost immediately in the form of language barriers and casual bigotry. Then the young pitcher gets hurt and his veteran teammate, the one he’s been leaning on for support, gets released. Sugar grows increasingly isolated and lonely. He has a difficult time fitting in with his surroundings and doesn’t make many friends, aside from a few teammates here and there. He’s forced to evaluate the world around him and his place within it. Then the pressure begins to mount, and a new teammate is brought in to take Sugar’s spot in the rotation.

Finally, everything comes to a head during a bench-clearing brawl that Sugar instigates, and he ends up walking off the team. Sugar takes the bus to New York City, where he searches for a new American Dream and a sense of connection and belonging he’d previously been lacking.

The movie, the work of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is filmed in somewhat of a documentary style, which gives it a bit of a distanced feel. Sugar is a character we’re invited to observe, though we’re never completely welcomed into his world or his head. The audience is isolated and alienated from Sugar at times, as Sugar is isolated and alienated from the world, the people around him, and the game he once loved to play. It’s not an entirely successful conceit, because there were times when I wished we were allowed into Sugar’s head, but the moments when we are allowed in are poignant and well-crafted.

Algenis Perez Soto, who plays Sugar, was discovered by the filmmakers playing baseball in his native Dominican Republic. Soto himself had once had dreams of playing baseball professionally in the States and played amateur ball in his home country for several years before moving on to acting. Perhaps Soto’s real life experience help the actor lend nuance to his performance. There’s never a moment when you doubt Soto as Sugar. He embodies the character; he is Sugar.

Soto’s strong performance makes Sugar a character you want to root for, even as you see his dream going down in flames around him. When he manages to pick himself up and find a new path to follow, and a new world to inhabit, it feels right.

Boden and Fleck were inspired to write the screenplay for Sugar after doing some search on Dominican players in the minor league system, and interviewing Dominican immigrants who came to the States to play baseball. Sugar is a guy “caught up up in the baseball machine,” according to Fleck, and the movie is about his “coming to that awareness.”

Those of us who still believe in the American Dream, in the success story, generally want a rags to riches tale. We don’t want to watch a character take a few steps to the top and then fall back down the flight of stairs, left to start their journey all over again. We want to hit the high note and stay there.

What makes Sugar so affecting is the the viewer does genuinely end up wanting him to put his dream aside. He is, as described by the filmmakers, just a cog in the baseball machine and easily replaced. You want him to fall down and get back up.

The Pianist and Satchel Paige
A pianist finds inspiration in games from his childhood.

We’ve all read books or seen movies about a character who chased after a dream with a single-minded obsession, only to be undone by it. Something in that speaks to our obsession with our own shortcomings. Perhaps we find comfort in seeing others fall short; Hey, we think, I’m not alone here. Miguel “Sugar” Santos almost loses himself in a world that doesn’t have a place for him and finds himself in a world that does. That’s as triumphant a story as any.

The movie was written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also helmed the critically acclaimed Ryan Gosling movie, Half-Nelson. Sugar was selected to compete in the Dramatic Competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and was included in the American Film Institute’s Top 10 for 2009 list.

Alexandra Simon is a pragmatic but somewhat rabid Detroit Tigers fan who enjoys candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach. Follow her on Twitter @catswithbats, and also @glasshalffulmer, where she also tweets about baseball.
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Great review. I hadn’t heard of this but now I’ll definitely keep my eye out for it.

Alfonso L. Tusa
Alfonso L. Tusa

Hi Alexandra, I have some baseball texts I’ve written through the years, some of them have been published, most of them not. I’d like to know if you could be interested in reviewing at least one of them. The point is texts are written in spanish, but if you decide reading one of them I could make the effort of translating it.