The Spirit Award-nominated upcoming movie Sugar is about a young Dominican baseball player, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, who is attempting to play pro ball in the United States. A pitcher, he wants to follow in the footsteps of local heroes such as Pedro Martinez, and have a long, wealthy career in our MLB. However, like so many others in the Dominican Republic, he carries the weight of his family’s dreams on his shoulders. This is part fish out of water tale, part coming-of-age movie, and part sports/baseball film. Ultimately, these elements combine to make a compelling, if imperfect, film.
Sugar is comfortable in his native land, a top prospect hailed by the locals who plays for a development team full-time. The DR has a rich baseball history with many professional successes and it has become a hot-bed for American teams to pluck talent from. Pitching for a Kansas City Royals affiliate, Sugar hopes to be one of the next in line to graduate to stardom in America. His path won’t be an easy one and Sugar takes a realistic approach to detailing the issues that young players like Santos face.
Early on in the film there is a scene where Sugar is throwing some warm-up pitches and an American scout shows him a different grip on the baseball that would enable him to throw a “spike curve.” Now, anybody that has ever thrown a baseball or certainly ever tried to throw with different, complicated grips, knows how challenging this can be. But this being the movies, you expect Sugar to hurl the ball with incredible accuracy at the catcher, wowing the scout in the process. But alas, Hollywood this is not. Sugar’s attempted throw is uncatchable and it goes sailing out of the camera’s view. A wild pitch, to say the least. It’s a moment that tells us we are not watching a conventional film where we expect the talented prospect to do everything right. It adds a great sense of realism to the experience of a “sports movie.”
Sugar’s baseball prowess takes him from the Dominican to Phoenix, AZ with a spring training invite. There, he deals with the culture shock of living in America, regularly gnawing on the only food he knows how to order at a local restaurant, “French toast.” He then laments to his girlfriend back home that the food is really sweet in America. It’s a small, funny moment but also a bit tragic. Even though he typically has one or two friends around that can interpret the language for him, the difficulty of new situations that such a young person must face, in a foreign land with little help, becomes an issue he must constantly grapple with.
Soon, Sugar receives an invite to play Single-A ball in Iowa. The task of navigating the landscape is raised considerably on the farm where he stays. He encounters a bit of racism, plenty of middle-American faith, a greater sense of loneliness, all along with his ups and downs as a ball player. After performing well on the field, a foot injury threatens to derail a promising career. Will he rise to the challenge and regain his old form or will he wither under the expectations? He is growing into a man, still dealing with all of these trails and tribulations as a mere 20 year old but is he mature enough to handle the adversity? That is where the crux of the film lies. It shares some scripted elements to the great basketball-based documentary, Hoop Dreams. When Sugar eventually lands in New York, will it be the city of big dreams or broken dreams?
From the team that brought you the Ryan Gosling-led Half Nelson, Sugar is a rare film that has both co-writers and co-directors. They do an admirable job of capturing the action and drama as directors even if the film could have been benefitted from sharper focus at times. Algenis Perez Soto, who plays Santos, carries the screen admirably, which is made all the more impressive by his being a first-time actor who was more of a ball player in his native land than anything else. The film is planned for release in early April to coincide with the start of a new baseball season. As a movie that will appeal to sports fans, drama lovers and independent film enthusiasts, Sugar is sweet enough that it should be seen in theaters when you have the chance. Swing batter!