Step up for this ground-breaking film about race, class, money, sex, isolation, the immigrant experience, lost ideals and — oh, yeah — baseball. On the surface, Sugar sounds pretty rah-rah. Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), nicknamed Sugar, is a 19-year-old poverty-row Dominican who rides his wicked curveball to a shot at the U.S. big time. Hey, it happened for Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez, among others. But Sugar doesn’t follow the trite Hollywood game plan. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the filmmaking couple who share writing and directing duties, are seemingly allergic to formula. Exhibit A is the no-bull artistry of Half Nelson, their 2006 debut starring an Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling as a crackhead teacher.
From the time Sugar leaves home for minor-league tryouts, first in Arizona and then in heartland Iowa, the film takes us inside the head of a stranger in a strange land. Barriers are erected by language, religion, food, even Sugar’s erotic attraction to the daughter (Ellary Porterfield) of the Iowa couple he boards with. Soto, new to acting but not baseball, scores a knockout, nailing every nuance in a complex role.
When an injury screws up Sugar’s career trajectory, he skips out for Manhattan and a brush with darkness. And that’s enough with the plot details, except to say that Boden and Fleck are exceptional talents who refuse to sweeten Sugar for mass consumption. The result is raw and riveting.