"Sugar" scores as sports flick with heart
"Sugar": A baseball movie that transcends its genre, starring Algenis Pérez Soto as a young Dominican aiming for the big leagues. Review by Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times movie critic.
Seattle Times movie critic
"Sugar, " with Algenis Pérez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jaime Tirelli. Written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. 114 minutes. Rated R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles where necessary. Harvard Exit.
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With superb control, "Sugar" focuses on an elusive sweet spot: the zone in which a baseball pitcher must throw the ball, and the mind games it takes to keep it there. Miguel (Algenis Pérez Soto) is a baby-faced 19-year-old with a nickname inspired by both his love of dessert and his sweet nature. He's got a wicked curve and a heap of promise, and he catches the eye of baseball scouts who visit his training academy in the Dominican Republic. It's a ticket out of poverty at home — and out of the academy, where the young men learn English by practicing phrases such as "Your performance on the mound is not as good as last year" — but does he have what it takes to succeed in the big leagues?
Written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (who made the excellent drama "Half Nelson," which earned Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination), "Sugar" is a sports movie that transcends its genre; it's a story about one man's American dream, and about how that dream can be as elusive as the strike zone. "Welcome to America, son," says a wry coach, when Miguel gives up his first home run.
Moving smoothly from Miguel's small hometown to spring training in Arizona and a minor-league season in Iowa (where the cornfields stretch endlessly before Miguel's wondering eye), "Sugar" takes us on the ballplayer's journey as he struggles with his pitching skills and with a new language and culture. He orders French toast at a restaurant every day, because it's the only breakfast phrase he knows, until a kind waitress explains "scrambled," "over easy" and "sunny-side up." Soto, making his film debut, gives a very still performance that makes perfect sense for the character: Miguel, young and overwhelmed, is simply taking everything in.
Fleck and Boden find atmospheric details in this beautifully shot film, from the dust rising from a ball's smack into a catcher's mitt to the postcard-pretty sunset on a Dominican baseball field. And while Miguel's quest eventually encompasses an unexpected detour, it ends right where it must: in a new and irresistibly sunny ballpark, wreathed with smiles.
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