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Field of American Dreams

MOVIE REVIEW
Sugar (2009)

16
Fernando Calzada/Sony Pictures Classics

Some might find baseball the most boring of American sports to watch on television (it could have been the most boring of any, but British television airs both snooker and darts), so any movie about baseball automatically has an uphill climb. Previous successes such as "Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham" and others which don't star Kevin Costner have raked the sport over pretty thoroughly. But Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote and co-directed "Sugar" and so refreshed the teacher-student genre with "Half Nelson," found an equally interesting new angle in this film. The eponymous hero (Algenis Perez Soto, making his movie debut) is a Dominican on contract to a training camp for the Kansas City Royals. Since Sammy Sosa made his name, we've all been dimly aware of the baseball fever which exists in Latin America, so it's interesting to learn what life in like for these young men. What makes "Sugar" really special is its focus on a young man who gets what he wants, only to realize it's not what he wanted after all.

With several dozen other young players, Sugar learns English (baseball terms only), practices his pitching and dreams of when he will be called up into the minor leagues and from there into the majors. Sugar sleeps at the camp which looks like an army barracks, going home the occasional weekend to visit his family and his pretty girlfriend. He's charming, friendly, a good pitcher, and knows he has his family and his town's expectations with him. So when he is called up to America, there is a great deal that goes with him in his duffel bag.

The farm team in Iowa he is sent to is very different to what he imagined. His English is bad at first, but the locals are mostly kind and understanding, such as the diner waitress who figures out why he eats nothing but French toast – he doesn't know anything else on the menu. The team lodges him with a baseball-mad local family, the granddaughter of which tries to make friends by inviting him to her Bible study group. Sugar plays hard, but spends a lot of time lost in thought. The Midwest is very different from his home. And then he makes a decision.

This is one of the more interior and quiet films to emerge from America in recent memory. By stranding their hero in a foreign country, Ms. Boden and Mr. Fleck have a head start on making their hero lost, but his interiority is accessible. His adventures in Iowa are not the usual stranger-in-a-strange-land routine, which is merciful, and the baseball surroundings lend many of his actions the reassuring routine that comes from any sport. The mix of English and Spanish is utterly realistic, and the gaps between the characters' understanding of each other seem authentic. But Sugar loses his way a little, and the film's focus wanders at the same time - unfortunate, because Mr. Perez Soto is a natural actor with an easy smile and strong physical presence. He is genuine, helping his hosts with the dishes and joking easily with both his Dominican friends as well as a hot young American prospect (Andre Holland, another acting discovery). The music is also impressive, which managed to dodge both Latin and hip-hop clichés while remaining totally plausible.

As Sugar moves from teenage ball playing to adult responsibilities, the film could use more structure in his journey. Maybe even a voice over which would have let us keep up more easily with his thoughts. Ms. Boden and Mr. Fleck have a lot of faith in their audience in their refusal to spell out anything, but tightening up the structure would have strengthened the film as a whole. That said, "Sugar" does something new with a sports movie: the hero's growth just happens to occur within a baseball setting. He would probably have made the same decisions no matter what job he was doing. By refusing to "win one for the Gipper" or any of the other boring sporty standards, the directors have a lot to be proud of. By being a little bit bolder, however, they really could have hit it out of the park.

SUGAR

Opens on April 3, 2009 in New York and on June 5, 2009 in Britain.

Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Ms. Boden; music by Michael Brook; production designer, Elizabeth Mickle; produced by Paul Mezey, Jamie Patricof and Jeremy Kipp Walker; released by Sony Pictures Classics (United States) and Axiom Films (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Algenis Pérez Soto (Miguel Santos, also known as Azúcar), Rayniel Rufino (Jorge Ramírez), Andre Holland (Brad Johnson), Michael Gaston (Stu Sutton), Jaime Tirelli (Osvaldo), José Rijo (Alvarez), Ellary Porterfield (Anne Higgins) and Ann Whitney (Helen Higgins).

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