Far too often, sports films present a Cinderella tale of finding destiny. Instead of Prince Charming, the protagonist finds victory. It can be a physical win or, as in the case of Rocky and almost every film featuring an athlete in the past handful of years, a moral victory. Refreshing and insightful, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar offers neither. Stark and almost depressing, Sugar looks at professional baseball with jaded eyes. This presents an excellent and insightful opportunity to explore and comment on the game and its connection to the American Dream.
Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) has been raised and preened to become a professional ballplayer in America. Attending a baseball academy in his home country, he was long been under the watchful eye of scouts looking for a new, cheap breakout star. Not only is Sugar coached in the art of pitching, but he and the other academy attendees are given lessons in coping with life in the big leagues, away from friends and family. They take a class of English essentials where the language of the game is spoken. Because knowing what a home run is is more important than knowing how to ask for directions or where a washroom is.
For these boys, baseball is a means of not only success for them and their families, but also a means of escape. The American Dream is the end game for Sugar, not pitching a no-hitter in Game 7 of the World Series. It’s from this angle that Boden and Fleck approach Sugar. This puts some distance between Sugar and the game that’s meant to bring him his dream. He’s not emotionally invested when he’s playing in the Dominican. Once he’s alone in America without any friends or family around, this distance is amplified even further.
Sugar has the feel of a cinema verité documentary where the camera is simply there capturing the story. Don’t expect to find any glorious glowing stadium lights or first-person perspectives of baseballs flying from the pitcher’s mound. Boden and Fleck use this minimalist approach to capture the confusion and frustration Sugar experiences. With a methodically natural approach to shooting, it puts the focus on the emotional core of the film. The directing pair have crafted a film that excels at telling a seemingly familiar story in a different light. Even though it’s the baseball film equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back in that it’s something of a downer. But that’s what makes Sugar worth watching. Fresh perspectives offer fresh ideas, even if they don’t result in a smile and a happy Frank Sinatra song about love.