Sugar is the story of a Dominican teenager working towards his goal of becoming a professional pitcher in Major League Baseball. Miguel Santos, or “Sugar”, is eventually recruited to the US minor leagues, and we get to follow his journey to the MLB. This is the next film from writing/directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the pair who brought us the masterful Half Nelson. While this film isn’t as powerful and doesn’t feature a performance of the same magnitude that Ryan Gosling had, it’s a worthy follow up and the best sports film of the year.
Great sports films are about as hard to come by as great horror movies. These genres, in my opinion, have very similar history and patterns. Both usually follow a very simple formula, with sports movies we follow an underdog team to an unlikely victory or a a players personal journey to fame and fortune. It’s no less than ridiculous, that almost every sports movie made, even ones being released this year, fall into those descriptions. So, when something comes along that doesn’t follow a formula, I give it full attention. Sugar is different because it barely follows any of the actual baseball games. It only shows what Santos does, how his pitching performance goes. It only shows what’s important for the character as this movie is somewhat of a character study. We really get in the mindset of a foreigner struggling to understand America and struggling to improve his game. Another breath of fresh air is that Santos isn’t a star. He is an average pro who may never really be a starting pitcher. For once we get insight into the journey of someone normal, not someone destined to make it.
One of the most interesting insights we are afforded is that of seeing the process of how a player in the Dominican Republic is scouted and signed. It’s fascinating, and very different than one might expect. I attended a Q & A with both Boden and Fleck, and Fleck said what inspired him to make this movie, besides loving baseball, was his curiosity in how this process works and also wanting to tell the story of an average player. They succeeding in doing so, as the story is very engrossing and it goes to surprising places, including a terrific ending.
One of the more interesting things I found out at the Q & A was that Algenis Perez Soto was a non-professional actor who could not speak english. Throughout the film, Soto’s character learns more and more english as he arrives in the US. The actor actually went through the very same learning experience. This really helps the movie feel authentic. Soto is very believable and likable as the title character. He brings a soft sincerity lost in most Hollywood pictures.
The movie never shows the scoreboard when a game ends. This film is not interested in such things, it only wants to tell this one man’s story. As a result, Sugar might not please all sports movie enthusiasts. However, I savoured every minute of this rare gem. This is simply one of the best, freshest sports movies of the decade.