By Henry Stewart
Dir. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
Directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden look like they’re on a quest to reinvent American subgenres. s well they should be: too many of this country’s movies, not least of all its indies, have languished too long under the insistent predictability of their narrative and character arcs. Every so often, they need a good shaking up. The directors’ mission began three years ago with Half Nelson, which, years before The Class hit these shores, made the student-teacher movie feel fresh, even stimulating. Rejecting the phony inspirationalism of exemplars like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, it flipped the familiar formula: Ryan Gosling’s antiheroic, crack-addicted history teacher needed salvation as much as his inner-city students did; he leaned on them.
Fleck and Boden, who remain a team since they met and began dating as NYU film majors, now return with Sugar, a baseball movie that, like Half Nelson, bears only a cursory resemblance to its generic forebears. For a supposed national pastime, baseball hasn’t had an easy shake recently in Hollywood: few movies about the game get made anymore, in this Costner-less steroid scandal era, and for every one that has sufficiently honored the medium and sport—The Natural, Eight Men Out, Bull Durham—just as many have demeaned one or both. Too many baseball movies have been sappy (Field of Dreams), puerile (Rookie of the Year) or crude (the Major League trilogy).
With Sugar, the directors once again have upended a tired formula, though the gist is the same: an ostensible underdog fights his way to the Big Time. The details and end game, however, have been radically reworked. Our shy-smiled hero, Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto), whose sobriquet gives the film its title, is a Dominican pitcher hustling through a Caribbean talent farm run by the Kansas City Royals. Though, like any baseballing protagonist Sugar’s long-term dreams involve making it to the big leagues, just getting to America and to the promise of a single-A team is daunting enough for him. Playfully, Sugar defies the expectations that countless other films have instilled in us. Before Sugar inevitably leaves for the U.S., to a minor league team in Iowa, his mentor gifts him a pen. “For your autograph,” the mentor says. A typical baseball movie may have ended the scene there, but the filmmakers let it play out: “Just kidding, you arrogant prick. So you’ll write your family.”
Fleck and Boden have re-envisioned the sports movie by fusing it with an immigration story, an examination of the unsung and unrecognized failure—the anti-Sammy Sosa Story. Sugar’s virtue is in its details: the spot Miguel’s mother occupies amid the infinite rows of sweatshop workers; the rusted cars and dirt roads that make-up the Dominican landscape; the stark contrast between that landscape and the manicured abundance of the American strip mall. The eye, or ear, for detail extends down to the level of game play, in something as basic as the pop of the catcher’s mitt. Blessedly, the filmmakers avoid any speeches about the semiotics of the Crack of the Bat; instead, through understatement, they gently imbue the wearing of a bona fide uniform, the performance of the national anthem, and the modest applause of a minor league crowd with an ineffable majesty. Baseball is made numinous, a religion that unifies Dominican and American cultures through its popularity and prevalence in each.
Sugar, essentially, is about immigrants and citizens, their differences and similarities. Once in the U.S., Sugar and his fellow nonnative teammates must remind themselves that they’re playing the same game, just in a new place. But getting a hang of the game is easier than getting a handle on the culture. The script boasts copious assimilation jokes, though the directors rarely let them devolve into condescension. The players eat nothing but French toast, because it’s the only thing they know how to order in English. The American excess shocks them: the electronic gizmos, the beers in the minibar, the pay-per-view pornography. But the filmmakers don’t play the culture shock for laughs alone; Sugar frequently evokes the silent pain of being a stranger in a strange land—the inability to communicate, the isolation and loneliness conveyed in Soto’s heavy stare.
There are some striking moments in Sugar, such as an uninterrupted, Van Santian tracking shot that follows our hero from his hotel room, through corridors, past a bar and an arcade into a bowling alley, underlining the alienness of his new surroundings. But the filmmakers also succumb to some melodramatic Indiewood impulses, as well. For every sincere and tender scene, such as Sugar weeping into his American caretaker’s waist, the filmmakers toss in a cloying, manipulative or patronizing moment: a Zach Braff¬–esque shoutout to TV on the Radio from one of Sugar’s U.S.-born teammates, absurdly surprised that our hero isn’t familiar with the band; several montages that lazily pull us through the baseball season; and a shot of Sugar wistfully staring out the window of a bus at the American landscape rolling by—a Sundance standby. Fleck and Boden even use Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the soundtrack—albeit a Spanish-language cover.
Sugar might be an unconventional baseball movie, but as an immigration movie it’s a little too familiar—and, ultimately, the film is less a sports story than a movie about the hurdles of coming to America and Making It. Baseball serves as a stand-in for the larger immigrant experience: the disadvantages, the failures, the relentless competitiveness, and the cruelty of the one-strike-and-your-out ethos. When one of our hero’s friends and teammates is booted off the ballclub for underperforming after a knee injury, Sugar tells the people back home: “He’s not a horse!” One character remarks that life gives you many chances but “baseball gives you only one.”
Baseball, maybe, but not America. A genuine hint of hope emerges from beneath the movie’s dispiriting layers of pessimism and hardship. (It’s called “Sugar,” not “Miguel” or “High Fructose Corn Syrup.”) Yes, boorish Americans at the ballpark, stuffing their faces with cheeseburgers, jeer brutishly (“you suck!”), and drunken Iowans incite a race riot when the dark-skinned baseballers salsa with their white women. But plenty of generous Americans, on whose kindness Sugar comes to depend, occupy the film’s margins, too: the waitress who teaches Sugar how to order different kinds of eggs so he can move on from French toast, the bouncer who looks the other way when Sugar uses a fake ID, the elderly farm couple who takes him into their home like a foreign exchange student—not to mention the immigrant network, Los Nuevos Americanos, that supports Sugar through his baseball career and the rest of his life in America.
Ultimately, believing he has lost his mojo and will soon be cut from the team, our hero runs away from Iowa, taking a bus to New York City and a subway up to Yankee Stadium—his Statue of Liberty. His mother criticizes him for giving up. “I didn’t give up,” he tells her, using a phone card in his seedy hotel room. “I’m starting something new.” And so the immigrant reinvents himself, from pitcher to dishwasher, resisting returning home to be the would-a-been selling cell phone chargers on dusty street corners.
In a touching coda, up in the Bronx other failed Latino players get together on the weekends to play baseball (their for-love-of-the-game perseverance evokes Eight Men Out’s poignant finale, in which the audience finds Shoeless Joe, anonymous on an amateur circuit, still playing years after his dismissal from the major leagues). Fleck and Boden here suggest that there are two sides to baseball—one cruel, the other supportive—just as there are two sides to the U.S.; they toggle between depicting baseball as an exploitative, unforgiving road to fame and fortune and as a strictly recreational sport played out of love and camaraderie. In the end, they pitch the game as a unifying institution, rather than a malicious American export. “The whole world plays baseball,” one immigrant tells Sugar. The movie ends on a visual contradiction: Sugar, behind a chain-link fence, cheering. Optimistically, the shot suggests that, though tough and occasionally unforgiving, the U.S. isn’t such a bad place. It’s a moment both hard earned and heartwarming—and it’s been a while since a baseball movie had one of those. Consider the genre re-energized.