Traditional sports movies, particularly those about baseball, are usually suffused with nostalgia and sentimentality. A few, such as Field of Dreams, do it well enough to endear themselves. Most, like the utterly ridiculous For Love of the Game, are pure treacle.
But the new baseball film, Sugar (Azucar in Spanish), released to coincide with the start of the new major league season, avoids the usual traps and delivers a sobering and loving look at the national pastime.
Sugar follows a young Dominican pitching prospect, Miguel “Azucar” Santos, on his journey from his native island into the heart of middle America in an effort to make it to “the big show.” Written and directed by husband and wife team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the movie precisely captures the pace and rhythms of the game, timeless and rife with surprise.
The title of the film comes from the lead character’s nickname. Or does it? Maybe Boden and Fleck are alluding to the exploitation of the poor that took place on sugar plantations in decades past.
We first meet Sugar, played by newcomer Algenis Perez Soto, and his teammates as they toil at one of the numerous major-league-sponsored baseball academies that exist throughout Latin America. The greatest concentration of these academies is, of course, in the baseball-obsessed Dominican Republic. The gated compound looks like a retreat, a respite from the dulling poverty from which most of the players come, but it can take on aspects of a stalag, a prison camp replete with an observation tower and security guards.
For Sugar and the other players, baseball is much more than a game: It is perceived as a way out and up, the lottery ticket on which they have staked their future and that of their families. And it is a family affair.
Sugar’s mother, sister and younger brother are all keenly aware of what making it can mean to them. Each day his mother asks him if he has gotten the call from America that would signal his jump to a minor league team. When the call finally comes from the fictional Kansas City Knights, for an invitation to spring training in Arizona, the neighborhood throws Sugar a going-away party, where everyone reminds him of the part they each played in his burgeoning success.
Soto, who had no acting experience, is dead-on as a talented athlete, supremely confident in his right arm’s ability, but also perfectly exudes the wonderment of callow youth as he navigates a new culture and a different language thousands of miles from home.
Sugar is sent to a minor-league affiliate in Iowa. His hosts are an elderly couple who live and breathe baseball: Their casual analysis of the game would put many professional announcers to shame. The fictional minor leaguers stand in for real-life prototypes: the never-will-be, the once-highly-touted, the can’t-miss-kid like Sugar who believes that he will be the next Pedro Martinez or David “Big Papi” Ortiz.
Everything starts brightly for Sugar as he rides his fastball and spiked curve to local celebrity. He develops an attraction to his hosts’ granddaughter, a sublime Bible-thumper, who, while genuinely physically attracted to Sugar, is more intrigued by the idea of saving his soul. There is a twist in the final third of the film, a plotline that snaps like a Dwight Gooden curve. But ask yourself: Where do all the players who never quite make it to the majors end up?
The film supplies one answer and Soto delivers a marvelous performance that earns him instant all-star status.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.