A portrait of an immigrant, a sports movie containing a commentary on the machinations of American sport and a coming-of-age drama: Sugar, the latest film from Half Nelson creators Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is not short of subject matter.
The story of Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos begins with his life in the Dominican Republic where his skill as a pitcher sees him drawn into one of the training academies that supplies the baseball teams of the USA. Happy with his status as a local celebrity and looking forward to the chance of being a star who can provide for his family, Sugar dedicates himself wholeheartedly to his task. When he is called up to spring training at a minor league team in a small country town in the States he embraces his chance to take his next step toward the major league. Once there, however, his progress stalls as his lack of English and the absence of his friends and family take their toll and he begins to question whether it’s all worth it.
On the one hand, this is an excellent look behind the the scenes of sport. Over here in the UK we have a similar situation in football where huge amounts of cash are spent on importing talent from all over the world for our own amusement, and I for one have occasionally felt a pang of guilt as I pump my hard-earned cash into the coffers of an undeserving company operating in the market of glorified people-trafficking business just because I live near it. The isolation, culture-shock and ultimate feeling of loss and emptiness on the part of Sugar is a fitting indictment of the strange industry of sport.
On the other, it is a slightly patronising portrait of a man that dumbs down the experience of immigrants until it becomes one ‘overwhelming culture shock’ that leaves them almost powerless to cope. As if these people can’t take pressure, or automatically give up on learning English so easily! Worse still, I felt patronised in the process. Wide establishing shots of groups of foreign faces told me to be overwhlemed with him, moments of strife were driven into me by quick zooms into a close-up and loneliness was enhanced by long (and frankly boring) scenes of solitude.
This makes it difficult to decide whether this film is a great Indie flick with something to say, or an arthouse movie that’s all mouth and no trousers (as we say here).
One thing’s for sure, it’s interesting enough to warrant a viewing – whatever conclusion you come to. Aside from the interesting slant on sport, there’s the unique performance of Algenis Perez Soto as Sugar. It’s his first acting role and he adapts to the nuanced elements of his character and the orchestrated emotion of certain set-ups with equal skill, bringing a naturalism that does enormous favours to the overall tone of the movie. Without such a strong, sensible performance this devoid of unnecessary artistic trappings the film would certainly be just another average indie movie.