Sugar: Small but Sweet, an Excellent Non-Traditional Baseball Movie
19-year-old Dominican born and raised, Miguel "Sugar" Santos had just pitched his first game for the fictional Kansas City Knights at Spring Training in Phoenix, Ari., and along with that received his first pay check for $502.18. After lifting weights for a little while he went to a place called Mesa Cafe for dinner.
The nickname, "Sugar," comes from him being sweet with the ladies...So he says, at least. A friend insists that it's because of his eating habits.
Sugar always had french toast there. Why did he always have french toast? This was because his English was very limited so he just had what his friend had ordered the first time, in fact the rest of his friends had done the same.
This time Sugar was at the Mesa Cafe by himself and strived to be independant when a waitress approached him at his table.
Waitress: French Toast right?
Sugar: Uh, no. Egg. Egg, please.
Waitress: Eggs? No problem. How'd you like 'em?
Sugar: (Stares at the table) Yes.
Waitress: Um, OK...Scrambled, over easy, or sunny side up?
Sugar: *sighs* French Toast.
Waitress: No eggs? You sure?
Sugar: French Toast please.
Waitress: Alright honey, French Toast it is.
That exchange of dialogue is simple but it's sad and works very well in a new movie soon out on DVD called Sugar. We feel him alienated and the feeling of awkwardness without making the waitress out to be an insensitive racist.
It's written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the same duo that brought actor Ryan Gosling critical acclaim in the movie Half Nelson. While this film likely won't receive an Oscar nomination like Half Nelson did, it's no knock on the film and in fact I enjoyed it even more.
Sugar is the best baseball movie to come out since we saw Kevin Costner break the minor league record for career home runs in Bull Durham, and it's one of the best movies of 2009.
Sports movies have often been very formulaic and sensationalized in recent years and that is why Sugar is such a breath of fresh air. It's about so much more than a phenom or a big game. It's about the journey that Dominican baseball players take on their way to the big show on the field and off. It deals with language differences as earlier referenced to, race, and immigration.
Miguel "Sugar" Santos has been dreaming of leaving the Dominican Republic and to the United States and he has found his ticket, with a 95 MPH fastball and a deadly knuckle-curve. It's as much about living in America if not more than about carrying on his baseball career to the professional level. He is pursued by a couple teams but eventually does sign with the Kansas City Knights and finds himself at Spring Training.
He soon is assigned to the Swing, their Single A team in Iowa and is taken into an elderly couples house who take in a different player every year. The family knows little Spanish and Sugar feels feels isolated and lonely around them and just about anyone else. He tries to develop friendship with the families granddaughter, but even then there is confusion on both sides due to the languages. Only with his friends that also made the team from the Dominican does he ever break out of his shell.
Racial tensions escalate a couple times in scuffles, once at a nightclub and another time in the middle of a game after he throws at someone on the mound.
Sugar's career in Single A is soaring until he hurts his leg one game while running to cover first base. He never quite gets his rhythm back on the mound in future starts. In desperation he tries steroids but it does little if anything to get him back on the right track.
After falling apart in the fifth inning of a recent start, Sugar is seen hitting a cooler with his bat in frustration knowing that his dream may be over soon and he may be sent back to the Dominican Republic. One of his friends has also just been released after struggling to recover from an injury of his own. As his friend tells him, he's not playing well so they'll just bring up someone who is.
The film at this point takes quite the unexpected turn. I won't reveal in hope that you will see the movie and find out. I'll say just that there is no Fall Classic involved.
For the minuscule budget, Boden and Fleck are able to take you on an amazing journey from the streets of the Dominican Republic, to Arizona briefly, to the heartland of America in Iowa, and eventually New York. Every part of the film feels authentic with the different small towns and the way people watch these players develop and then crucify them when there is a setback and treat them like dogs.
Kudos to Boden and Fleck for casting people in the film that can play ball, making these scenes as good looking as possible. There also is not bad performance in the bunch or even merely just a decent performance. Most notably is the star of the film, Algenis Perez Soto, his first time on film but you'd never know from this complicated and heartfelt performance.
In the special features there is a 12 minute film showing the scene of the premier of the film at a film festival in the Dominican Republic. There are shots and interviews of star Dominican players such as Pedro Martinez, Sammy Sosa, Robinson Cano, and Francisco Cordero, among others. There is a little bit of each of their stories in this film and they all give a ringing endorsement of the film and its accuracy.
This film is for them and the long journey they made to the big leagues as well as the many other Latin players that made it and the many more than didn't. It's for baseball enthusiasts as well as people just looking for a nice sweet movie. Sugar hits DVD in the U.S. on September 1st and you should see it. It's an experience you shall never forget.
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