Sugar

Sony Classics April 2009

Sundance Film Fest 2008 (Dramatic Competition)–The gifted team of writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck charmed the Sundance Film Festival audiences with their prize-winning short “Gowanus, Brooklyn” (2004) and their stunning feature debut, “Half Nelson” (2006), for which Ryan Gosling, playing a drug-addict but committed to his students liberal history teacher, received a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

This year, the gifted couple returned with a film far removed from the world of their previous work, though one that shares the same insights into humanity and high level of craft. Set against the disparate backdrops of the Dominican Republic, rural Iowa, and New York City, “Sugar” explores a fascinating side of Americas pastime as well as the values and practices that it continues to embody.

The yarn follows Miguel Santos, a Dominican baseball player struggling to make it to the big leagues and pull his family out of poverty. Santos gets his break at age 19, when he advances to the U.S.'s minor league system and travels from his tight-knit community to a small town in Iowa. In the new environment, he struggles with the new language and culture–despite the welcoming efforts of his host family. Indeed, surrounded by cornfields and predominantly white men (and culture), Santos enters a presumably rational and human but coldly-operated machine that grinds up young men in its ruthless search for the next “Big Thing,” say Sammy Sosa.

When Santos' play on the mound falters, he begins to examine more deeply the world around him and his place within it, ultimately questioning the single-mindedness of his very life long- ambition. Remarkably, in “Sugar,” what starts out to be a classic rags-to-riches sports story turns into a much more complex and realistic probation of what it means for young athletes to chase their dreams.

As they showed in Half Nelson, Boden are especially good with their actors. This is particularly the case of their lead, a nonprofessional whom they discovered playing baseball in the Dominican Republic. Algenis Perez Soto shines in the lead role, delivering a multifaceted performance that is both natural and absorbing, a powerful yet understated turn that rings emotionally true.

Credits

Some of the dialogue is in Spanish with English subtitles