Written & Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Even though there is just one game, baseball, there are so many different angles and takes that have been produced over the years in the form of movies. Most of the films focus on the professional ranks, highlighting a player, or a team. Some features kids or little league play. There have even been a couple films in this marathon which have featured the minor leagues (Major League: Back to the Minors and Bull Durham). But within the baseball film there is yet another layer of genre, as both those minor league films are comedies. The minor league drama had not been explored before 2008’s Sugar, which may be part of my affection for this movie. Having never been done before, it’s original, plus it helps that it could even be categorized under indie neo neo realism. This isn’t pop entertainment, it’s art, not to sound too pretentious.
Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a promising young pitcher from the Dominican Republic. After signing to play for the Kansas City Knights major league club, Miguel begins at a Dominican camp, learning the tricks of the trade, like a knuckle curveball, while he makes enough money to provide for his poor family. After being invited to spring training, Miguel makes the Single-A Bridgetown Swing, where he is taken in by a nice elderly farm couple. Miguel sees success right away in Bridgetown, mentored by the fellow Dominican Jorge. But soon he begins to see just how competitive professional baseball can be, and how stressful, all while having to acclimate to life in America where he doesn’t speak English and where he is looked at as being different, threatening in more ways than just on the diamond.
Sugar gets so many things right while exploring multiple aspects of the professional game of baseball which have not been explored on screen before. I think showing the stresses of a mediocre player trying to grind out a living, and how much it takes away from the original love of the game, is perhaps the most important message here. So often we romanticize the game. I’ve done it, and it’s easy to. But sometimes we forget just how hard it is to make it in baseball, how selective the stars of the game are. As fans, we call this guy a “bum”, or say that player “sucks”, and so on, but many times, especially at the minor league level, these guys are grinding to make a living and support their families, especially those from third world countries sending money home. Boden and Fleck progress this story in such a steady and assured manner that the evolution of Sugar’s psyche is naturally upsetting while also allowing the viewer to be completely sympathetic.
But by making Sugar Dominican, we see how such a fair game on the field, is often very unfair off it. Bringing in the Stanford star Brad Johnson into the fold as Sugar’s friend is unsettling, as we see a rich American boy with a great education, claiming he would go back to school or teach if he didn’t play baseball. Meanwhile, Miguel was brought up on the game in poverty, hitting rocks with sticks in his impoverished town. If not for baseball, he would still be there. Seeing this dichotomy, and how it plays into the perfect and extremely poignant third act/ending, brings to light issues not just in discrimination in baseball, but in the world in general. As Americans we are often blessed with great privileges and situations in which to grow up. Are there problems? Of course, not every American baseball player is a smart rich kid like Brad, but the frustration of being different, not being able to communicate, add to the effect of Miguel’s story.
In the landscape of baseball movies, Sugar stands out because it’s not sentimental, it’s not romantic, the featured team doesn’t win in the end, the featured player never makes it to the big leagues. It’s realistic, which is not always what we might want to see, but it brings something special to the table. It’s sympathetic, and small. By focusing on the lofty dream of Miguel “Sugar” Santos, we begin to see his true dream, which is to provide for his family, something many of us take for granted, but which can come as a struggle to many people, Americans included. The cast is full of nobody’s, but they deliver very simple, grounded performances. I guarantee you Sugar is unlike any baseball movie you’ve seen. I also guarantee you it’s the best one you’ve never heard of.