The great Amer­i­can game

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

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

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