Anna Boden + Ryan Fleck's SUGAR

Saturday, June 6, 2009 | |

Sitting here watching a Red Sox game where a young cancer survivor has come close to pitching a second no-hitter, and a beloved slugger has returned from a slump to Fenway's delight, I am reminded why baseball appeals so much to hopeless romantics like myself. Movies about major league baseball however tend to be a little too cheesy. The Natural was bearable, mostly because Robert Redford is a fox. Field of Dreams was rescued from mediocrity by James Earl Jones. HBO Films' Sugar is an entirely different breed of baseball movie

I went to a screening of the film at Red River Theater in Concord, NH. This theater is one of the best parts about my time in NH because it does cool things like have lead actors (Algenis Pérez Soto) appear for Q&As, offers student discounts, and is the rare theater that serves beer (but this ain't Brooklyn folks, can't take advantage of it quite yet).
Soto, a first time actor, appears in Sugar as aspiring Dominican pitcher Miguel "Sugar" Santos. He begins a climb through the minor leagues at a training camp in DR run by the Kansas City organization, which was the first team to establish such an academy abroad. His time at the camp isn't storybook, struggling to learn baseball-English and how to throw a spike curve, nor is his situation in DR crafted for American audiences as one of abject poverty. This promise of realism doesn't waver, something which Soto's description of his own athletic aspirations in the Dominican attests to. He praised the writing and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) for their accurate interpretation of DR's love of baseball and the often slow journey through the maze of each division of professional baseball. Boden and Fleck's indie sensibility is evident not only in the use of handheld cameras, non-actors, and musical montages set to TV On the Radio, but in their general spurnning of the Hollywood-approved trajectory for baseball films.

As Soto discussed the challenge of a lifelong shortstop learning to be convincing as a pitcher, the physicality of his performance became even more poignant. Bringing the high heat is as important to the portrayal as his reliance on facial expressions (notably in the film's final shot). Moments of contemplation or frustration are not built upon by any dramatic speeches, but instead serve to contribute to the overall stunningly beautiful subtlety of the film. Viewers need not be baseball nerds, or even like the sport particularly, to appreciate Sugar and regard it as one of the best films of 2009.