Monday, April 13, 2009


I really loved Sugar, intitial reservations as I watched the last act included. I met up with Gil & Amanda there, and I think we all came away pretty impressed with just how many things it does well. It's a very impressive movie that way.

I go on a bit in the review about how a major component of the movie is how a person reacts to the first time he's in a situation where he's not the best, because that certainly is how I connected to it. College killed me there - knowing computers and math better than any other kid in North Yarmouth/Cumberland, ME didn't mean a heck of a lot when I got to school and everybody there had been at the top of their class in those subjects, and I don't know that I dealt with it better than Miguel does in the film (in fact, I'm pretty darn sure I didn't work as hard as he did). It's probably a fairly common phenomenon, but one that lets all manner of people connect to a character who is otherwise pretty far outside their experience.

Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were there, as well as star Algenis Perez Soto, so it kind of functioned as a warm-up for The Independent Film Festival of Boston; Boden & Fleck have been there nearly every year since its inception, with narrative and documentary shorts as well as Half Nelson. I think the streak was actually broken last year because Sony Pictures Classics or HBO Films didn't allow it to show. (This year, Ms. Boden is the editor of IFFB selection Children of Invention)

This is roughly the 500th Q&A session where I couldn't think of a question afterward. As I was walking home, one half-formed in my mind about Jose Rijo, who was their baseball adviser in the Dominican and apparently has a small part in the film. He was the first to go in the Washington Nationals' recent purge of their front office, in no small part due to some tremendous ineptitude at their Dominican academy. I'm still not sure what I would have asked, though - "was Rijo distracted enough working with you to not get taken in by a player four years older than he claimed using a false name?" seems kind of tactless.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square (first-run, filmmakers in attendance)

It's an oft-repeated joke that the Dominican Republic's chief exports are sugar and professional baseball players. I'm not sure whether that was in the mind of filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck when they named the title character of their engrossing new movie; I suspect they did. It's the sort of movie that reveals more with closer examination, and while that sometimes happens because things come together naturally, it's more often planned.

Miguel "Sucre" ("Sugar") Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a seventeen-year-old pitcher who signed with the Kansas City Knights a year or two earlier, and has been working hard at the team's Dominican baseball academy ever since. He's put on twenty pounds of muscle over the winter, and when a scout asks him to try a knuckle curve, he practices it obsessively until he masters it. That gets him an invitation to spring training, with the next stop the low minors in Iowa. For as much as everyone in the organization tells him that it's the same game he's played all his life, though, Iowa is a different world, where nobody speaks Spanish and even fellow rookies like Brad Johnson (Andre Holland) don't quite understand how much is riding on Miguel's shoulders.

Sugar starts out looking like a rags-to-riches movie, with the poor kid from the Dominican being overwhelmed by the promise of America, but that's not the direction it heads. He's still overwhelmed, of course, but it's by a world that he can't understand and seems utterly alien to him. It's also about how disposable we treat athletes and other entertainers, and places like the Dominican Republic in general And, if that seems a little too impersonal or political, it's also about something almost all of us must face - the moment when we first have to really compete, and how we respond.

Not everybody has that moment, or it may come earlier than we can remember. It may not be about something at the center of our lives. But it's certainly the engine that drives this movie's story, and that makes it a story we can relate to, rather than something like a lecture about what these other people go through for our entertainment. When we first see Miguel, it's apparent that he's both the most naturally talented and hardest worker in the academy, but by the time he gets to single-A, everybody is just as talented, determined, and hard-working. How he reacts to that situation is what spins the movie off in the direction it winds up taking.

That winds up being a bit uncomfortable at first - the transition point in the movie is so abrupt and unexplained that the audience may initially think that something else is going on, and the movie is taking a while to get back on track. I'm not sure whether that's a positive or a negative; the filmmakers had done such a good job up until that point of presenting what Miguel is thinking and feeling without resorting to things like narration or sounding board characters (the latter of which would have ruined the feeling of isolation). There are lots of great moments like that - especially notable are a series of scenes in an Arizona diner where he struggles to order breakfast and a long tracking shot that emphasizes the sensory overload of a hotel on the road.

And there's Algenis Perez Soto, a first-time actor who nevertheless gives a very impressive performance. Its main note is alienation and confusion, but of a reserved sort. During the early scenes in the Dominican, we also get a clear picture of the combination of cocky self-confidence and relentless hard work that are the minimum of what it takes to succeed in something like professional sports. He's surrounded by a variety of good but understated performances - Rayniel Rufino as the mentor on his way down, Andre Holland as the hyped American prospect who becomes Miguel's friend, Ann Whitney and Richard Bull as his host family in Iowa (and Ellery Porterfield as their attractive granddaughter), and Michael Gaston as the manager of the single-A team.

Boden and Fleck give Sugar the same matter-of-fact feel as their previous film, Half Nelson. Much of it is shot in actual Dominican, spring training, and minor league facilities, although we see much more of the clubhouses than game action. They avoid coming straight out and saying what they want the audience to learn directly, but show enough to get their points across. They avoid obvious side-by-side comparisons; for instance, the scene where a bunch of kids in the Dominican are taught the English words for various baseball terms is separated from them being unable to order in the diner that we don't consciously connect the two until later, when the true thrust of the film becomes clear.

Indeed, one can say that Sugar isn't really a baseball film (though doesn't that get said about every sports movie of any depth?), but rather a film about the exploitation of third-world countries; it just focuses on baseball because that will draw more people in than a movie about Miguel's mother and sister in the garment factory. It is, fortunately, well-constructed enough to be both, and a coming-of-age movie besides.

Full review at EFC.

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