Out of the Park

'Sugar' is better than typical sports films thanks to a tense, engaging twist

I totally get why drunk people watch baseball, but it's not my favorite sport. So I look forward to watching a baseball-themed movie like I look forward to the third Wednesday in April. I mean, I don't have anything particularly against it; it's just not a big event for me.

But Sugar exceeded my low expectations, and then rose and developed higher expectations in me, and then mostly met those expectations, and then it was over, and I felt like I didn't really need a personal relationship with a deity, because it was a pretty good movie, and if that's all there is to life, well, so be it.

It begins in the Dominican Republic, where a bunch of Dominican Republicans (I know, the term is "Dominicans," but there are so few Republicans left now that I thought I'd help them out by giving them a Caribbean nation) are playing baseball at a Kansas City Royals farm-club camp.

Among the best of them is Miguel "Sugar" Santos, so-called because he's composed of a glucose molecule and a sucrose molecule linked together into a disaccharide. It's weird, but it works. Anyway, he's a pitcher with a wicked fastball, skill in carpentry, a hot girlfriend and a mother who loves him.

Then, baseball calls, and suddenly everyone in his village pretends to be his best friend, because he's going to go to America, which is The Greatest Country In The World. He arrives at the Kansas City spring training camp in Phoenix, which is a horrible city in the Best State In The Country. From there, his basic excellence gets him bumped to single-A ball and a small town in Iowa.

Of course, lots of cultural conflict and such occurs. This is well-trod territory, and the film uses most of the tropes of movies of its genre (the little guy trying to make it big, the fish out of water, and sports films generally). But that's OK: Pretty much every story has been told, and no one came up to Sir Thomas Malory when he put out Le Morte d'Arthur and said, "Dude, that's totally a rip-off of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae," because people were cool about that kind of thing back then.

Besides, stories are meant to be retold. What sets Sugar apart is that it's told so well. As Sugar, Algenis Perez Soto manages to bring a tremendous amount of tension to his performance. Arriving in Iowa with only a few words of English (mostly things like "home run!" and "curveball" and "Alex Rodriguez sold those to me"), he is set up to live with an elderly couple who speak no Spanish and are noticeably Caucasian. As he listens to them try to explain household matters, you can see the incomprehension and fear of making a faux pas play across his face. And yet he presents a certain naïveté that makes it seem as though, in spite of being afraid of it, he really is going to make that faux pas.

Some of the best sequences in the film occur between Sugar and these new landlords, Helen and Earl Higgins (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull). They're super sports fans who have set aside a room in their house for whatever new player is coming through to play for the local team that year. Whitney and Bull give well-tuned performances, coming across as tremendously nice, but dangerously deaf to Sugar's cultural differences. The feeling of impending disaster rises when Sugar gets all lip-locky with their granddaughter, Anne, who runs a Christian teen group and is probably saving herself for a white guy who speaks English and has a better ERA. Nonetheless, the meeting-of-cultures stuff is tremendously sensitive to both perspectives without being treacly or deferentially P.C.

As the film progresses, and a lot of the standard tropes are rehearsed (Sugar starts his baseball career with a few bad pitches, then becomes a local star, then goes into a slump, then a young kid looks like he's gunning for Sugar's slot, etc.), things take an unusual turn, and the movie departs a little from familiar territory, serving up an ending that is satisfying, unexpected and not at all simple.

While it could have been a perfectly decent standard-order sports film, Sugar rises above its roots and produces a tense, engaging and ultimately fresh perspective on the genre. Writer/director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously made the underappreciated gem Half Nelson, now have two surprisingly excellent small films under their belts and have become names to watch.

Sugar is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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