Thursday, April 30, 2009

'Sugar' moves outside the lines

Miguel "Sugar" Santos is a cocky Dominican kid who sees himself as a bona fide Big League prospect. Unlike most youngsters who dream of someday shaming the world's best hitters, Sugar has reason to believe in his future. He's been selected to participate in a Dominican-based baseball academy: Quickly, he signs with the fictional Kansas City Knights and advances to the team's farm system.

That sounds like a formula for a typical sports movie: Poor kid maximizes athletic talent and finds glory on U.S. playing fields. But that's not the movie that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made. Rather than following the normal base path, they broaden their view. Wisely and to great effect, "Sugar" explores cultural conflict and deep issues of identity and aspiration. Boden and Fleck tone down the sports aspects of the movie, giving Sugar's off-field life its due.

"Sugar," which begins its Denver run Friday, begins in the Dominican Republic. These baseball camp sequences might be the most interesting in the film. We see how the players are trained on and off the field. English lessons, for example, include the repetition of phrases that have little use beyond the ball yard. We also see Sugar's impoverished home life. For him, a signing bonus (though modest) isn't about fraternity bragging rights; it's about raising his family's standard of living. Sure, it's a great opportunity, but family expectations add yet another layer of pressure to Sugar's upwardly mobile climb.

Credit Boden and Fleck for making the movie mostly in Spanish. It's an essential choice because when Sugar winds up in in the minor league system, language becomes a major obstacle on the path of adjustment. Unable to handle the subtleties of ordering food, the Spanish-speaking players gravitate toward restaurants that feature pictures on their menus. Sugar also has difficulties -- none exaggerated to the point of unbelievability -- with the strait-laced family that takes him in during his minor league stint with Iowa's Bridgetown Swing.

Algenis Perez Soto, the non-professional actor who plays Sugar, has a reasonably convincing mound presence, but does even better in scenes away from the game. He effectively conveys Sugar's growing confusion. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Sugar's demeanor changes. He's no longer a happy kid with a bountiful world at the end of his pitching arm, but a young man feeling the pressures of stiff competition and the loneliness of being away from home. He's 19, not exactly an age when one's likely to have figured things out.

Using only a couple of characters, Boden and Fleck -- who previously directed the much harder-edged "Half Nelson" -- nicely chart the upward and downward trajectories found in Minor League club houses. Brad Johnson (Andre Holland) seems confident of his rise to stardom. He's a college grad and Bonus Baby. He contrasts with Jorge Ramirez (Rayniel Rufino), a young man who's on his way out of baseball. I also love the way Boden and Fleck capture the feel of the Hispanic neighborhood around Yankee Stadium.

Boden and Fleck aren't out to vilify baseball. You understand why the Major League teams have established these academies. Something like 15 percent of all Big League players hail from the Dominican Republic and the total rises to 30 percent in the Minors. In an interview (see post on April 27), Boden and Fleck told me that they didn't question any one's intentions, but preferred to look at the whole system -- from Dominican poverty to baseball's tendency to turn players into commodities.

I've grown to hate the tag "coming-of-age" movies. We've seen too many of them. But it's an appropriate enough label for "Sugar." Boden and FLeck have given us a well-told story about a young man who doesn't know exactly what he wants. He's also on a pressure-packed path that makes it exceptionally difficult for him to find out.

To be honest, I'm more of a creature of the sports-fan culture than I thought: At times, I was more interested in seeing Sugar make it in the Majors than in seeing his journey of self-discovery. But Boden and Fleck made me re-examine my values, and that's a good thing. By the end, I wasn't rooting for "Sugar" to pitch a no-hitter, but to find a place where he felt truly at home.

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