April 24, 2009

REVIEW: Sugar (A)

A few years ago I attended the semi-finals and finals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. I'm a baseball fan (Twins and pre-2004 Red Sox during college, when they were still lovably cursed and I worked part-time at a souvenir shop at Fenway Park), but the decision to attend the WBC was really made on a whim. I lived within walking distance of Petco Park in San Diego and figured, "Hey, if this thing ends up being the World Cup of baseball, it would be kind of cool to say that I went to the first one." I rounded up a half dozen friends, scored $20-$30 tickets on eBay and watched the Saturday doubleheader before seeing Japan beat Cuba the following Monday for the first-ever "real" world title.

Beyond the pride-swallowing fact that Team USA didn't even make the semi-finals, the biggest surprise of the weekend was indeed the World Cup-like atmosphere. Chants and songs rippling through the stands, waving flags, blaring instruments, piercing whistles, painted faces, and above all, different languages to hear and read. At one point my friend Matty and I found ourselves surrounded by supporters of the South Korean team, so naturally we chanted along with them (Matty also took hold of a drum and started wailing on it). There we were, screaming something in Korean during a tournament championship featuring teams from Japan, Cuba, South Korea and the Dominican Republic. Ah, the Great American Pastime.

The globalization of the sport obviously isn't news to baseball fans, most of whom will be familiar with the minor league farm systems portrayed in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's terrific new film, Sugar. Fortunately for them it isn't a rehash of The Natural or Bull Durham, and fortunately for non-baseball fans it isn't really about baseball at all, but about what baseball means to different people in the different countries (including the DR) represented by the screaming fans around me three years ago. For comparison, you could say this film is about baseball in the same way that Fleck and Boden's last film, Half Nelson, is about teaching.

Sugar follows a season in the life of Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a doe-eyed Dominican baseball prospect who cashes his pitching talent in for an open-ended ticket to the United States, where he plays for the single-A affiliate of the Kansas City Knights (Royals). His farm team is based in the (also fictional) farm town of Bridgetown, IA, where Evangelical Christianity and a lack of diversity make for an extremely alienating environment. Miguel has two friends on the team (a Dominican and an African-American teammate, well played by Rayniel Rufino and Andre Holland, respectively), but his time off the field is mostly spent in isolation as he tries to navigate the cultural divide. His inability to speak English prevents him from ordering anything other than french toast at a local diner, and the innocent granddaughter of his host parents teaches him a disappointing lesson in American courtship. I won't say more about the last half hour of the film, but suffice to say Miguel ultimately experiences more downs than ups.

It's a dramatic story punctuated by moments of fish-out-of-water comedy, but it never strikes a false note. You get the sense that Sugar is rooted in realism, and it's no surprise that Fleck and Boden shot the film on location and auditioned some 600 Dominicans for Miguel's role. His is one of a hundred true stories of the Dominican ballplayers found on the rosters of probably every MLB team, and this is the first time the curtain has been pulled back on the situation on film (well, second time, but PBS' phenomenal "The New Americans" unfortunately went unseen by most people).

The only song Miguel "Sugar" Santos knows in English is "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"...

Beyond observing this tumultuous journey from the D.R. to the U.S., what really made Sugar interesting to me were the other issues it addressed, such as illegal immigration and the potential for exploitation of Dominicans at these professional baseball academies.

While Sugar doesn't have the endorsement of Major League Baseball, I wonder if Commissioner Bud Selig wouldn't still approve of its portrayal of the league's interworkings. The Dominican prospects are shown to be well looked after, trained, groomed, and otherwise given every chance to succeed. According to Sugar, if they don't make it to "the show" it's on account of a lack of talent or a poor work ethic, not any result of overtraining, inflated expectations or cross-cultural difficulties. I would have liked to see a little bit more of the story on the Dominican side - where do the MLB scouts find these kids? What do they promise them and how do they prepare them for life away from baseball?

According to the post-screening Q & A with Fleck and Boden, professional baseball has essentially become one of the leading export industries in the Dominican Republic. Presumably every young boy with any athletic talent is primed from early childhood to swing a bat and throw a fastball. In a country whose economy is based primarily on agriculture and tourism, what happens to 90+% of boys who don't make it, and to what extent, if any, should the MLB be held accountable for propagating poverty? I understand that Dominicans would still play the game even if they weren't sending kids off to the U.S., but these baseball academies appear to have really changed the culture down there. It's a way for people to escape their difficult situation, but even with millionaire players remitting some of their salaries back to the community, this system seem to benefit MLB owners, scouts, and agents to a disproportionate degree.

Which is why, of course, so many of the "failed" Dominican ballplayers remain in the U.S. illegally. What's waiting for them at home aside from humiliation and unemployment? Sugar doesn't explore the issue of illegal immigration until the end (and even then only matter-of-factly), so you're left assuming that its overall tone is sympathetic to those who remain in the U.S. (Ironically, Fleck and Boden reported that the lead actor, Soto, has been in the U.S. since Sugar wrapped over 18 months ago; he still has a work visa and is traveling to some cities to promote the film, and they said he hopes to stay here.) But whether or not you can charge the filmmakers as enablers of illegal immigration is beside the point, since Sugar portrays the situation as it is, not as it should or could be. The many former players they show as at the end of the film remind us that baseball is only one part of these people's lives, and most of them have found another way to be productive members of American society.

It's becoming clear that only two features into their young careers, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have proven they belong in the big leagues of independent film. After throwing a deceptive strike with their first pitch (Half Nelson), they have now delivered another knuckle ball of a movie, unpredictably rising up and down and every which way before eventually, accordingly, patiently hitting its mark across the plate. It's essential viewing for even casual fans of professional baseball, but I really don't want to limit it to that audience. Simply put, Sugar is an earnest and entertaining film with fascinating real-life relevance.

Writing - 9
Acting - 9
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 47/50= 94% = A


  1. I went to the WBC in 2006 in Anaheim. Was not a fan of it at all and will probably never go again. I'm a huge baseball fan, too. From Boston, so a legit Red Sox fan. Maybe the San Diego atmosphere was different.

  2. A "legit" Sox fan, haha. I know I was a poser, but it was fun at the time. And I still hate the Yankees anyway.

    I don't think the San Diego atmosphere made for a difference in our experience - it was probably just the fact that it was the Final Four weekend that I attended. The Saturday games were decent but the Monday night championship was really a raucous crowd. I think they announced at 40,000+, which was probably only true for Monday.

    Anyway, take a look-see at Sugar - I'd be interested in your thoughts.

  3. Yeah, I'll definitely have to check it out. Will let you know.


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