Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Producers: Paul Mezey, Jamie Patricof, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Cast: Algenis Perez Soto
U.S.A., 2008, 120 min.
*Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck wowed Sundance Film Festival audiences with their prize-winning short Gowanus, Brooklyn (2004) and their feature Half Nelson (2006). They return with a film far removed from the world of these two, but one that shares the same insights into humanity and an extremely high level of craft.
Sugar follows Miguel Santos, a Dominican baseball player struggling to make it to the big leagues and pull his family out of poverty. He gets his break at age 19, when he advances to the United States's minor league system and travels from his tight-knit community to a small town in Iowa. Miguel struggles with the new language and culture despite the welcoming efforts of his host family. When his play on the mound falters, he begins examining more closely the world around him and his place within it, and ultimately questions the single-mindedness of his life's ambition.
What starts out to be a classic rags-to-riches sports story turns into a much more complex and realistic examination of what it means for young athletes to chase their dreams. Algenis Perez Soto shines in the lead role, delivering a multifaceted performance that is both natural and absorbing. Set against the disparate backdrops of the Dominican Republic, rural Iowa, and New York City, Sugar explores a fascinating side of America's pastime as well as what it embodies to people outside the country.
*Summary by Trevor Groth, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
I have been looking forward to seeing Sugar, the second feature from the Half Nelson team, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, for awhile now. Half Nelson was my favorite film of 2006, and I had heard good things about this radically different follow-up to the aesthetic of Half Nelson. I loved ¾ of Sugar. Once the story separated from the baseball aspects and focused on Miguel’s struggles in New York, I felt it really got bogged down. I see where the story is going, trying to expand the film’s scope, but there were too many strange tangents that went nowhere. I also felt the conflict in the conclusion wrapped far too quickly. There is so much to love in the majority of this film though, and I want to start with that.
The realistic depiction of the baseball camps in the Dominican Republic, the familial relations, the give-and-take between teammates and coaches, was just wonderful. There is a an early moment that I have seen in a million films; when someone at work gets good news on the phone call and starts yelling and jumping around. In Sugar, this clichéd moment felt new. Miguel’s mom is at work when she gets the call that her son is going to America, and at first she covers up her mouth and turns from the camera, trying to contain her happiness. Then she turns around and yells out, but we cut straight to the noise of the after party just before she screams out. It doesn’t sound like much, but with a little brilliant editing, Boden and Fleck made a rote moment seem poignant again.
When Miguel gets to America, there is a lot of great humor mined from the Dominicans inability to understand English. It is never mocking humor, just gentle and real laughs generated from the characters being in a foreign country. I also loved the depiction of the old couple in Iowa who take Miguel in. Their idea of speaking Spanish, or Spanglish, is hilarious, especially when the filmmakers use the subtitles to “translate” the couples’ nonsense. Yet, Boden and Fleck walk a really fine line by not demonizing the old couple. They are pushy and a bit ignorant, but they are good decent people, and that is so hard to portray shades of gray in only a couple scenes. I also loved the scene where Miguel cries, holding onto the old man like a life preserver. The old man looks at his wife with this helpless look; he doesn’t know what to do. So he does the only thing he can, hold on to Miguel and let him say what needs to be said. It’s a wonderful scene.
Sugar is also a beautiful looking film with bright vibrant colors and a commanding knowledge of technique. Boden and Fleck use the focus of the camera to express Miguel’s separation from the Americans around him. The rest of the world is always out of focus around him. This is best expressed is a short shot where Miguel is in a line up singing the national anthem with his teammates. He is standing in the middle of the lineup and the filmmakers manage to keep the players in front of Miguel and behind Miguel completely out of focus while Miguel remains perfectly clear. It is a subtle thing, but I felt this technique really helped us observe America as Miguel senses it.
I loved it when the film got dark as Miguel turned to drugs to help his pitching. I thought this was a plot thread that would be followed up, but then he disappeared to New York, abandoning the sport he lived and breathed for. Then there were a whole lot of pieces that never coalesced into a forward driving plot. There was a strange tangent with the prostitute who lived next door to Miguel that was unnecessary and confusing. He has a couple well-played scenes with the owner of a carpentry store and a nice break-down in his shop (a scene nearly ruined by some strange snap zooms on each actor), when all his frustration comes to the surface. But then, suddenly, all his conflict is resolved. A quick montage later, Miguel is now satisfied with his job as a waiter, living with the carpenter and his family, and playing baseball in a local league. This turnaround from tortured, unfulfilled potential to satisfaction moved way too fast. Maybe if we got to New York sooner in the story so that the transition would be lees jarring and we could have more time to explore Miguel’s assimilation into his new life? There might have been a deeper motivation to Miguel’s quickly resolved storyline, if so, I missed it. And just a couple nitpick things: I loved the music selection in Half Nelson and I was a little disappointed to hear the filmmakers choose to play Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah over a montage near the end, a song that has been waaaaaay over-played in movies over the past 5 years. Also, the last shot of the film, when Miguel seems happy and at peace playing local baseball, we rack focus to the chain-link fence in front of him and then cut to black. What is that about? Are we meant to think that Miguel is still trapped under the burden of expectation or is it just a needless stylistic flair? Finally, the still shot in the Sundance booklet (the one pictured above) is not in the film, which is a shame because it looks like a beautiful camera shot and a perfect symbol of Miguel’s quest to succeed in America.I feel like I’ve been too harsh, there is so much to recommend about this film. The acting is tremendous, especially considering that the majority of the cast is comprised of non-actors. Algenis Perez Soto as ‘Miguel’ is fantastic, with a subtle and soulful portrayal on top of a wonderfully innocent smile. The direction is miles from the shaky-cam of Half Nelson, and despite the snap zooms in the final breakdown scene, the camera movement is completely naturalistic and intuitive. Sugar is an effort to freshen up the sport movie cliché, much like Half Nelson was a fresh look at the clichéd story of the inspirational teacher. I don’t think Sugar is as complete a success as Half Nelson, but it certainly is unique and breathes life into the coming-of-age sports story.