A.O. Scott recently claimed in the New York Times Magazine that Sugar is part of a burgeoning new wave of American neorealist cinema: non-actors acting like themselves, dreams not quite deferred but well at odds with reality, etc. I’m not buying what he’s selling, but Sugar is still a solid, touching film about a would-be American dreamer winging a spike curve straight at the game balls of the great American pastime.
Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a promising young pitcher in a Dominican baseball academy who gets the big call up to spring training in... Bridgetown, Iowa? It's not the first place a native-born dreamer might seek his fortune, but Sugar’s starting spot in the rotation for the Bridgetown Swing farm team (in this case, "farm" can be taken literally) for the fictional Kansas City Knights is as good as a Willy Wonka golden ticket. He’s the local hero of his dirt-road village back in the D.R., where we first find him using the carpentry skills inherited from his deceased father to build a house for his mujer y hermana y abuela — as soon as he finishes building that kitchen table he started a year ago. He’s sweet as his namesake, but does he have the staying power to make the big time? Or will he fade out as fast as an azucar rush?
Sugar follows writer-director tag team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s excellent Half Nelson, which also fleshed out a feel-good Hollywood premise with the messy complications of real life. And with the help of cinematographer Andrij Parekh, they capture baseball’s peculiar vacillation between inaction and intensity, with a lively enough visual style to engage non-fans who can’t sit through a single inning on TV. Of course, it helps that Soto is so naturally charming and comfortable in his role (he really did come up through the Dominican baseball academy system) and so expressive even in scenes where his language barrier cuts him off from the culture around him.
But he does make it from Iowa to Yankee Stadium in an unexpected though, yes, highly realistic manner. And it’s in the New York City scenes that this movie plants itself firmly at the back of your memory, spinning through the highs and lows of the modern-day immigrant experience towards an untraditional for-the-love-of-the-game ending as satisfying as the solid thwack of a box-fresh new ball in a well-oiled old glove. There it goes: the perfect first pitch of a new season for big dreamers of every caliber, from the bright-light big leagues to the municipal park.