Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Algenis PerezSoto, Ellary Porterfield, Rayniel Rufino
UK Release date: 5 June 2009
Certificate: 15 (114 mins)
I think it’s fair to say that most sporting films (especially ones about baseball) run the inherent risk of being cheesy, glossed with layers of artificiality and clichéd stereotypes. I’m sure you’ve all seen them, films that force the protagonist into a pre-existing mould: to succeed in the face of adversity, to overcome some vague inner conflict using overly sentimental gestures which ultimately leave audiences feeling emotionally blackmailed and cheated.
Fortunately, Sugar adheres to no such pre-dictated formula, with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck constructing a realistic, honest and sincere depiction of the baseball world sure to appeal to the sports aficionados. Sugar charts the story of Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a talented young baseball pitcher from the Dominican Republic who is plucked from baseball academy and leaves his friends and family after being given the opportunity to follow his dream of being a professional baseball player. ‘Sugar’, as he is know to his friends, finds himself in a small town in Iowa, separated from his loved ones. He is in no time at all lost and alone in a globalised Western world, a world at odds with the social and cultural values that he was accustomed to in the Dominican Republic.
It is the transition in culture and the language barrier Sugar faces that provides the film’s main source of drama. Sugar is not even able to speak and interact with the rather creepy all-American couple who house him as part of an ‘adopt a baseball player’ scheme that the Iowa club has in place. In that respect, I suppose the film manages to reach beyond baseball, speaking to anyone who is unable to connect with their surroundings having arrived in a new country, a new area, job or school even. Even when I started watching the film my heart sank slightly when I saw the first line of the subtitles flash up. (I know I know its because I’m young I hear you say), I just suppose I thought I wouldn’t be able to connect with the characters if I couldn’t understand the language. But by employing dual languages one feels or at least gets a glimpse of how Sugar feels; detached, an outsider in someway, unfamiliar with the language that surrounds him.
But of course Miguel Santos’ alienation from the world is more acute than most. His detachment is not evident just in his inability to communicate with his teammates or potential love interest, Anne Higgins (Ellary Porterfield). In fact, it is the smaller details that punctuate the film and it is this magnificent attention to detail that sets Sugar apart from other sports films. For example, on arriving in Iowa, Santos goes shopping for a rather fetching suit (he opts for a snazzy white number just for those who are wondering) and as he walks though the shop, he reads with confusion the tags on the white t-shirts: ‘made in the Dominican Republic’. What’s more, it is the distinct lack of cheap sentimentalism that really bolsters the films strength. Boden and Fleck portray the Dominican Republic as a place of great need, but do so not with clichéd shots of rundown urban backstreets or with images of malnourishment and famine, but with subtle pointers towards the globalized world we all live in: images of mass produced t-shirts juxtaposed against the banal clothing factory Santos’ mother works in.
What Boden and Fleck do so well is to create a series of plausible relationships. Ultimately this is why the film is so successful. Although Santos’ friendships are, for the most part, fleeting and short lived, they are what sustain him and keep him going. He is introduced to baseball players he had never heard of (Babe Ruth), popular American musicians (TV on the Radio), and new American foods (sunny-side-up eggs). Again, without resorting to cheap sentiment, the film puts human relationships at its forefront; even when Santos is at his most down and out he is saved not by his own prodigious baseballing talent, but by a Puerto Rican carpenter who teaches him the important things in life…. like how to use Google, for instance.
Ultimately, the film forces us to re-evaluate our own dreams, goals and ambitions. Just as Santos drops out of the baseball world in order to pursue personal happiness, we ourselves are asked to evaluate our notions of success. We are encouraged to ask whether success is to be found in our professional goals, or in the relationships and the bonds we form with other people.
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