Fernando Calzada, 2007, courtesy of Sony Pictures
STRIKING IT RICH: Algenis Perez Soto's 'Sugar' hopes to break into the big leagues.
'Sugar' scores as a great movie abou baseball and its discontents
By Richard von Busack
THERE IS more than a little salt in Sugar. This movie's honesty about the plantation side of the national pastime makes it indispensable. Algenis Perez Soto plays Miguel Santos, who got his nickname, "Azucar," either because of his sweet tooth or his easy way around the women. The movie begins in the Dominican Republic, where this southpaw pitcher is about to be signed for the farm team for the "Kansas City Knights." Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) cut from the image of a smash hit straight to a plate of red beans and rice; the game is clearly a way out for people whose choices are few, though this fact hasn't crushed their spirit. The island represents everything to the citizens: family, status, understanding. And the training can be slightly military, but it's playful. Players are even coached on how to answer the American reporters' dumb questions—a spin on a famous scene from Bull Durham, which may be the last baseball movie that's been this good. Boden and Fleck show the strangeness of a place like Iowa for a foreign young man like Santos; yet they are seduced by the charm of the "Bridgetown" stadium (it's the wonderfully picturesque Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Iowa). Sugar is given a place to stay by an old farming couple. The husband and wife are clearly decent people—and at the same time they are clearly forcing their religion on him. Their daughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield), is quite attracted to the new lodger, but she's too Christian to act on the attraction. And she's the one who really puts a strain on Sugar's self-confidence.
Soto holds down this full-length film with ease. He's a former infielder, coached as a pitcher for the camera by Jose Rio of the Cincinnati Reds. Soto is handsome and powerfully built; he looks like Will Smith before the actor got such divine afflatus. The directors do something daring. They give Soto a speech explaining how he lost a tiny divot out of his scalp when he was a little boy, and then keep the bit in untranslated Spanish. (I've been on a crusade to keep more backstories up in the air—it's up in the air for those who don't speak Spanish, anyway.) The film has been described as neodocumentary because of the use of rack-focus and the small-scale subject. There is, in fact, a great deal of craft here. The directors took the care to make a pastiche of the tracking shot in GoodFellas, following Sugar on a bummer night off in one of the fleshpots of Iowa: a long wander past the flickering video machines and the soda bar, with our hero coming to a dead end in a bowling alley. The adventurousness continues by bypassing both the victory and the noble failure we expect in a baseball film. Still, the ending goes into extra innings. When Sugar goes to another dance, that hobgoblin of the movies, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," is played in Spanish—the tune would need a rest even if it were in Swahili. Still, remember F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous quote about the necessity of a first-rate mind to balance two opposite truths? That's the kind of intelligence on display here. The film expresses both a love and hate of baseball that deepens our understandings of what the game requires, as well as what it gives us.
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