Diamond in the Rough
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: April 3, 2009
There is something undeniably noble and beautiful about the love of sports: the appreciation of grace and excellence for their own sakes, the pleasure of competition, the discipline of training. But the practice of big-time sports is often cruel and corrupt, a business built on the exploitation of young people and the peddling of impossible dreams. This basic contradiction will be in vivid evidence this weekend, during the national college basketball championships. It is also, at least implicitly, a central concern in “Sugar,” a wise and lovely new film by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
“Sugar,” which follows a young pitcher from a training camp in the Dominican Republic to a minor-league club in Iowa (and beyond), is infused with a deep affection for baseball, the rhythms of which are nimbly captured by a narrative pace and editing style that quicken and relax as necessary. The small details and rituals of the game — the locker room banter, the on-field surges of intensity and the tedium of the dugout — are captured with subtlety and without egg-headed, glorious-pastime sententiousness.
It is their belief in the dignity of the sport that allows Ms. Boden and Mr. Fleck to turn a quietly critical eye on its economic workings and social consequences. Though it tells a fictional story, “Sugar” belongs on a shelf with “Hoop Dreams,” another great film that challenges us to shed our illusions about sports even as we retain our capacity to delight in the games themselves.
Miguel Santos is certainly capable of such delight. Nicknamed Azúcar (Spanish for sugar), and played by a marvelously expressive and likable young nonprofessional actor named Algenis Pérez Soto, he is sweet and easygoing, but also fiercely competitive and a bit cocky.
Like many young Dominican men who demonstrate some baseball talent, he was signed by an American professional team (the fictitious Kansas City Knights) as a teenager. Sugar and his fellow recruits live in a training center that in some ways resembles a prep school, in others a prison. An armed guard stands at the gate, and practices are observed from what looks like a guard tower.
On weekends, Miguel goes home to his village to visit with his family and his girlfriend, and to hang out with slightly older men whose own dreams of major-league glory have evaporated or expired.
In their previous feature, “Half Nelson,” Ms. Boden and Mr. Fleck, a married couple who live in Brooklyn, seemed at first to be working within a familiar, somewhat dubious genre, the heroic urban teacher melodrama. But by making the teacher in question (played by Ryan Gosling) not only a drug addict but also, more important, a complicated individual whose moral confusion was hard to separate from his political idealism, they upended easy, sentimental assumptions about race, class and urban life.
Something similar happens in “Sugar.” For more than half its running time the film seems to be following the narrative structure of a standard sports story, unfolding through the triumphs and reversals of a single, fateful season. After a stint in spring training in Arizona, Miguel finds himself in Iowa, boarding with an elderly local couple and trying out his stuff in front of some pretty demanding hometown crowds as a starting pitcher for the Bridgetown Swing.
Off the field he socializes with his fellow Spanish-speaking ballplayers, befriends a former college star and conducts a tentative flirtation with the strawberry-blond, churchgoing granddaughter of his hosts, who wants him for spiritual or carnal purposes, or both. (Here in America we may accept the constitutional separation of church and state, but church and sex are much harder to keep apart.) On the field Miguel hits his stride early, is slowed down by an injury, faces various temptations and then ...
But see for yourself. The game of baseball, ungoverned by the clock, is notoriously full of surprises, and the surprise of “Sugar” — I don’t mean the major third-act plot twist, which is astonishing when it happens and utterly logical in retrospect — is that it’s not really about baseball at all. It’s about, among other things, the way America looks through the eyes of a stranger, about the beauty of the Caribbean, the Midwest and the South Bronx (skillfully evoked by the cinematographer Andrij Parekh), and about what it is to be a young man full of desire and potential in a world that seems starkly divided between haves and have-nots, success and failure.
Perhaps nowhere are these divisions more extreme than in the world of professional sports, which beguiles some of the poorest people in the hemisphere with specters of fabulous wealth. But even in that world, a lot of space is taken up by the middle ground: the modest paychecks sent to the family back home; the careers that culminate neither in glory nor in disgrace, but that flare up and peter out; the tiny increment of luck or timing that separates strike three from ball four.
And so “Sugar” walks away from clichés about the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, preferring to contemplate the satisfactions and frustrations that lie in between. It is both sad and hopeful, but the film’s sorrow and its optimism arise from its rarest and most thrilling quality, which is its deep and humane honesty.