Friday, September 11, 2009


Husband and wife writer/director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have knocked it out of the park again with Sugar (A+), a wonderful film about baseball, America, and how an immigrant's first experiences in our country are shaped around our national pastime. Their previous picture, the school-teacher/crack-addict drama Half Nelson, was a startling debut, which announced a new voice in independent cinema. The cinema verite style, combined with intense, raw performances (Ryan Gosling's bravura work should have gotten the Oscar), made for a searing portrait of man coming to pieces. In Sugar, Boden and Fleck take the same pseudo-doc style aesthetic, but have made a film as optimistic as Half Nelson was bleak. And while baseball is a major aspect to Sugar, the film is ultimately about an immigrant's strange and life-changing journey.

The film can be seen as three distinct pieces. In the opening segment we meet Miguel "Sugar" Santos (the fantastic Algenis Perez Soto, a baseball player who decided to give acting a shot) on his home turf in the Dominican Republic. He's a hot-shot pitcher, a phenom, someone who the MLB scouts are pegging could go all the way. We observe his mostly poor surroundings, and we see how he's the treasure of the family, the one person who everyone else thinks will bring the family some fortune. It's a lot of responsibility, and the film is keen to observe that for many young baseball players in the Dominican Republic, this sort of thing is a regular occurrence. Boden and Fleck shoot the scenes in the Dominican Republic in a rougher fashion, especially when compared to the lush camera style and warmer colors they employ when the action shifts to Iowa, where Sugar has been called up to AA ball. Here, the film becomes a fish out of water tale, as Sugar adapts to middle-of-the-U.S.A. living, all the while trying to keep his spot on the team, in the hopes of becoming a pro. The last section, the part I will discuss the least, takes place in a major American city, and these scenes take on a life of their own, in both dramatic function and style.

I guess what I'm trying to get across is that Sugar is exceedingly rich, with lots of genuine emotion and feeling running throughout its seams. The film never stinks of elitist condescension when it comes to the plight of the immigrant; Fleck and Boden's clear-eyed doc-style keeps the film grounded and realistic. The baseball scenes are handled skillfully, but never in a show-off manner. Soto, who was recruited for his baseball skills and handsome looks, delivers a quietly powerful performance as the titular character. A man of few words (for multiple reasons), Sugar represents all that's possible for people when they have a certain talent. And he learns that in the end, it's not necessarily how you use that talent to succeed in life, but rather how you use your talents to broaden your horizons and experience life to the fullest. Fleck and Boden, in working with the great cinematographer Andrij Parekh, keep a close, observant eye on everyone in the film, whether it be through long tracking shots or simple camera set ups which maximize the dramatics of the scene. Sugar isn't just a simple sports film, and those people who are looking for a movie where it all comes down to the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning are going to be disappointed. Instead, with Sugar, Fleck and Boden have crafted an exceptionally engaging movie that strikes many interesting, unpredictable, and satisfying chords. It's one of the best films of the year.

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