Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: "Sugar"

I like baseball movies more than I do baseball itself.

Give me "The Rookie," "Eight Men Out" or "The Natural" and a bag of crackerjack, and I'll happily burrow into a seat and watch all day. But the idea of sitting through a double-header strikes me as a form of punishment.

Baseball progresses at a snail's pace, with infrequent bursts of action, and has so many rules and so much arcana that the game seems meant for study rather than play. It's telling that to diamond purists, a perfect game is one in which nothing happens (i.e., no hits or walks).

The only time I've been able to get interested in baseball is when there's some compelling human story driving the (in)action -- the home run race of Sosa and McGuire, the subsequent steroid scandals, the unlikely rookie who makes it to the big leagues despite missing an arm or having severe diabetes.

Miguel Santos is one such story, and that's what makes "Sugar" an engrossing, if bittersweet addition to baseball's cinematic canon.

Miguel -- called "Sugar" for his sweet tooth -- comes from the Dominican Republic, where he's the next hot thing in the farm system of the fictional Kansas City Knights. But "Sugar" is not the tale of the next Pedro Martinez, a hotshot who makes it big and struggles with newfound fame.

Rather, "Sugar" is the sobering story of Miguel and thousands of guys like him, who bet all their chips on baseball, dropping out of school to hone their skills at the island's many baseball factories. Failing to make it to the show means having no safety net to fall back on.

Miguel (sensitively played by Algenis Perez Soto) is sent up to play single-A ball in Bridgetown, Iowa, and the culture shock is extraordinary. Speaking little English, Miguel needs a translator to understand his manager (Michel Gaston) and lives with a family of devout farmers.

At first, he's the shining new star in that little universe, throwing a cooking fastball and a new curveball that rack up the strikeouts. But an injury, coupled with the fear of failing, put his prospects in doubt.

Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck -- the same team behind the Oscar-nominated "Half Nelson" -- "Sugar" is about what happens when lofty ambitions meet earthbound realities. Some audience members may be put off by the film, since it eschews conventional crowd-pleasing gimmicks to concentrate on Miguel's spiritual descent.

There isn't a whole lot of baseball action in this film, which is perhaps why someone like me enjoyed it. "Sugar" doesn't care about the scoreboard, but the men behind the numbers.

3 stars out of four

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