By Roger Moore, The Orlando Sentinel
Sugar is a simple baseball melodrama about The Dominican Dream. And that dream is to master America’s game and win a trip to the States and a shot at the Major Leagues.
That’s what Miguel, aka ”Sugar,” wants. He’s a pitcher trying out for the Kansas City Knights. When we meet him, he’s living in a baseball academy dorm, trying to impress the team’s Dominican scout-coach, hoping to pick up enough English to manage life in the United States.
He hasn’t been optioned. It’s not a done deal. But it is in his mind.
”There’s nobody better than me,” he brags (in Spanish) to his teammates. “This is a million-dollar arm. I’m going to buy a Cadillac!”
Then we meet the family that is counting on him; the ramshackle house he is building, by hand, for his mom; the furniture he is also building by hand (dad was a carpenter).
We feel the pressure. At 19, his entire clan’s future is riding on his success. All heartwarming but very conventional baseball movie ingredients.
Where this Sundance Film Fest favorite breaks from formula is the girlfriend who isn’t determined to stay with him and follow him at all costs, the relatives who want to mooch — contrasted with the ex-ballplayer uncle who just wants to help — and in the mistakes ”Sugar” (nicknamed for his sweet tooth) makes.
A friend gets cut from the team so some of the lads go out drinking. All that time in the weight room, and this is what the coaches will remember.
But Sugar’s ”million-dollar” arm wins the day and he’s assigned to a farm team in Bridgeport, Iowa, taking a room with a conservative farm family. We’ve seen his teen judgment at work. As he eyes their fetching, might-be-interested church-group-leading granddaughter, we wonder “What mistake will he make next?”
Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) score with plenty of light ”fish out of water” moments. The Dominicans on the farm team don’t speak English, so they rely on a slightly more experienced teammate’s restaurant savvy. ”French toast,” they say, morning, noon and night.
Algenis Perez Soto makes a compelling leading man as the film follows the rookie through the arc of a season, the competition among the players for the spotlight, the first mistakes Sugar makes that impact his performance and the character he must show (or not show) in responding to it.
But Sugar evolves from a simple baseball tale to a simple illegal immigrant saga and that’s where it goes astray. Like a lot of young people, Sugar is making mistakes that will determine his future. As much as we root for him, his path is neither original nor particularly sympathetic.
The story is too pat and predictable to justify the film’s length. And thanks to the current scandal involving the unregulated farm system that major league teams have set up in the Dominican Republic, the film (shot two years ago) seems more dated than it might have.
The games feel real, and the sense of dread for the kid’s next misstep give the film heart. But this Sugar doesn’t blend the sweet with the bittersweet as deftly as it might have.
Cast: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland.
Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck.
A Sony Pictures Classic Release. Running time: 114 minutes. Language, some sexuality, graphic nudity, brief drug use. In Miami-Dade: South Beach. In Palm Beach: Shadowood.