The great American game
WE HAVE A film about baseball for you. Hey, come back. Sugar is, thank heavens, not another of those pictures in which Coach Samuel L Jackson saves ghetto kids from a life of crime by introducing them to punts and line drives.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the husband-and-wife team behind Half Nelson, this restrained film uses naturalism to tell a moving tale of displacement and disappointment. And, though it has interesting things to say about how baseball finds its stars, Sugar demands no interest in sport from its viewer. It is worthy of your time.
The film begins in the Dominican Republic, where good-hearted, hard-working Sugar (Algenis Pérez Soto) is honing his pitching at the training centre for a (fictional) American team called the Kansas City Knights. Before long, to the delight of his extended family, he secures a place with a minor team and, after spring training in Arizona, is flown to deepest Iowa where he secures lodgings with an elderly, God-fearing couple.
Such is the attitude of US indie cinema that we expect the film to exhibit condescension (if not outright hostility) towards the folk that Sugar meets in the midwest. Not a bit of it. Though bad things happen to the protagonist, the film has more to do with kindness than cruelty. His guardians, both fanatical baseball fans, urge him to greater success, and a waitress works hard to explain the notoriously complex nomenclature of American egg preparation.
Still, the film has no illusions about the Darwinian ruthlessness that drives sport. When Sugar pulls a muscle, he falls behind and has to watch as another man begins throwing endless strikes. His resolve begins to shake.
Driven by a relaxed, charming performance by Soto, Sugar has a grit and purchase that sets it aside from more mainstream dramas. This is not rough naturalism in the style of the Dardenne brothers – the old couples’ home is like something out of Norman Rockwell – but the combination of unhurried acting and looming crisis creates a singular class of tension.
It is, however, a shame that Sugar has to end with yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (in Spanish). The time for a voluntary moratorium on that tune has surely come.
Learning to play ball: Algenis Pérez Soto as Sugar