Sugar came out in 2009 to excellent reviews and relatively small audiences. Somehow, despite the fact that baseball movies are something of an obsession with me, I only just got around to seeing it – and, wow. It’s an understated movie, but never uninteresting, beautifully made, and more honest about the game than all but a handful of films have ever been. I liked it significantly more than Field of Dreams and about five million times more than The Natural, and though I can’t imagine that Sugar will ever get the kind of mass audience that those movies did, I still hope it manages to stick in the cultural consciousness.
In its outlines, the story is a familiar one to serious baseball fans: kid from the Dominican Republic signs with a major league team, struggles to deal with culture shock and professional competition in a small minor-league city. We’ve all read articles and interviews with international players that fit that profile, and beyond that, nothing hugely dramatic happens in Sugar — except that this story in and of itself is, really, a pretty dramatic one, even if dozens or hundreds of players a year go through it. And while I don’t want to give away the ending, I will just say that it feels honest, and very refreshingly so for a sports movie. There is no Big Game that will make or break everything, no villains, no inspiring speech, just a series of events and decisions that together make a story.
The movie opens at the just-barely-fictional Kansas City Knights baseball academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. It establishes the rhythms of the place, which is part school and mostly training facility – the camaraderie and competition between the players, the strict coaches, and life on the weekends at home in the town, where Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto, doing a good job in his only American film role to date) lives with his family. The scenes in the DR were some of my favorites, for their laid-back slice-of-life feel: peeling, brightly painted buildings, beaches, friends playing dominos, stray dogs, music, dancing, beer.
Sugar and an academy teammate finally get their long awaited call to Los Estados, attending spring training with the Kansas City Knights (who I assume were named after the New York Knights, Roy Hobbs’ team in The Natural). He and his Dominican teammates are taken under the wing of Jorge, a slightly older player who’s been slipping down the prospect lists after a knee injury – and who explains to them that you never drink the beer in the minibar, gives Sugar his old I.D. so he can get into bars, and takes the newcomers to a diner where, following his lead, they all order French toast. It takes weeks before Sugar, incredibly sick of French toast, figures out how to order eggs.
More than anything else, the movie does an excellent job of dramatizing the cultural disconnect and language barrier. There are no villains – some people are nicer than others, some are less helpful, but no one is evil. When Sugar gets assigned to the Knights’ single-A team in rural Iowa, he stays with a local couple, older farmers who live in the middle of cornfields. They are religious, reserved, extremely different from anything Sugar’s experienced before, and he feels deeply isolated living there – but they mean well. The movie is as much about finding a community in a new place as it is succeeding at baseball, and suggests that the latter may not be possible without the former, anyway.
If I had one issue, it’s that Sugar himself is a little bit of a cipher, as a character. I think partly this is by design – the character did not finish high school, has thought about almost nothing besides baseball for years, and once he reaches the U.S. is restricted by language and cultural differences – he’s quiet because he so often doesn’t know what to say or how to say it. Sugar’s favorite player is Robinson Cano; he’s never heard of Roberto Clemente. He loosens up a bit with the other Spanish speakers on the team, but even so the details of his personality come across only vaguely. Perhaps that makes it easier for the character to stand in for so many real-life immigrants.
The whole movie is excellent, but it’s the end that sets it apart for me – realistic and wistful without being depressing. He doesn’t make it to the Majors and throw a perfect game his first start out, and he doesn’t end up a drug addict with a life in ruins. The movie’s restraint doesn’t make it the least bit boring – on the contrary, because it rings true, it’s that much more engrossing.