Here’s a film I should’ve watched years ago during its limited theatrical release; although it was indeed limited to only NY and LA.
Sony Film Classics’ 2009’s Indie drama “Sugar” is not your average sports flick; it avoids the usual “for the love of the game” and the “glorious champion” clichés so common among films in this genre.
Unsurprisingly, “Sugar” was deemed one of the 10 best films of 2009 by AFI, and ranks a 94% Rotten Tomatoes score.
The film’s success lies in its subtlety and realism and its nuanced performances, especially by the titular character, Miguel Santos aka “Azucar” (“Sugar”), played by newcomer Algenis Perez Soto. It almost comes across as a documentary. Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who wrote and directed the film, interviewed many Dominican immigrants playing baseball in minor league towns. They also visited the Dominican Republic, where they discovered Perez Soto, who didn’t achieve his dream of playing professionally in the U.S.
It’s a relevant subject. Unbeknownst to many, according to statistics, 20% of U.S. professional baseball players are from the Dominican Republic. We see the Hispanic last names, and many figure these young players are lucky and thrilled to leave their impoverished countries for a chance for the big leagues. But it’s not as simple as it seems. Yes, they have ambition, and these men love the game.
However, playing ball in their native countries, along with their friends, among those within their culture, who speak their language, close to their loved ones, and being considered their town’s celebrity, is a very different ballgame than playing professionally in the U.S. – among strangers, facing bigotry, feeling displaced, isolated, and, to top it all of, feeling the pressure to succeed against a language and cultural barrier.
“Sugar” is the journey of Miguel, nicknamed Sugar for his sweet fast pitch; an affable “sweet” character, he loves his family, loves the game, loves his girlfriend, and he’s endeared to many in his hometown. Miguel’s family, who lost Sugar’s father years ago, place all their hopes on him to make them proud by making it in the big leagues. Miguel has already started to build his family – mother, grandmother, and sister – a bigger house with a bonus from the baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. In this academy, aspiring U.S. players learn some English – at least the game’s lingo.
Miguel is chosen for spring training by the Kansas City Knights (a fictional team), and assigned to their Single A affiliate, the Swing in Iowa. He is welcomed by the Higgins family, practicing Christians, who house players from the team every year. The Higgins mean well; Sugar abides to their rules, but he’s lonely, and he’s young.
Anne, the Higgins’ daughter, makes an effort to befriend Sugar and engage him socially in her Christian circle of friends. He’s attracted to her, and develops a short-lived attachment. She’s especially attentive, but their social outings are awkward, and besides an obvious physical attraction, Sugar is really an outcast. Their two worlds are simply too different, and when Sugar acts upon his crush on her, she rejects his advances.
This only adds to Sugar’s frustration and confusion. To make matters worse, on a night out at a club, he begins dancing with some young white women, and ends up in a physical confrontation with a white baseball player.
Up until that moment, it’s interesting to note that Sugar seemed rather oblivious to bigotry and matters of race, compared to how such matters weigh heavily in the minds of many Blacks and Whites in America. Therefore, he can’t readily connect with the other players, aside from Jorge, another player from his hometown, and Brad Johnson (Andre Holland), an African American, whom Sugar begins a genuine camaraderie with.
Sugar and Brad’s friendship comes with ease; it seems that Brad has familiarized himself with other Spanish speaking players in the league. He’s patient and amused by Sugar’s naiveté and ignorance about American Baseball trivia; most likely, their sense of kinship comes from being Black and minorities in the league. As a result, Brad, aside from veteran Jorge, is Sugar’s real connecting bridge into American culture.
But after his closest friend, Jorge, is cut from the team, Sugar’s confidence starts to crack under further pressure. He now feels more vulnerable than ever about failing, and feels more insecure about the new world around him. And it’s heart-trending to watch him succumb to the pressure, and lose control in the field. Soon after, Sugar flees to Bronx, NY, in search of his friend and a familiar turf. He finds refuge at the home of a workshop owner who befriends him, and who Sugar offers woodwork help in exchange for housing and a place to build his mother a table.
In a latter scene in the film, the shop owner, who is not a fan of baseball, tells Sugar his favorite player is Black Puerto Rican Vic Power, because of Power’s remarks to a waitress after being told at a restaurant counter in 1951, “We don’t serve colored people.” Power’s answer? “That’s OK! I don’t eat colored people. I just want some rice and beans!” A lesson in pride and facing struggles with humor and in stride, in this bittersweet, touching story.
“Sugar” is a familiar story of countless rejected professional baseball players in the U.S.; stories we don’t hear about because they’re about the so called losers; these journeys are all the more affecting due to immigrants’ feelings of physical and cultural displacement. But it’s a story of growing up, of courage, reflecting on what’s really important and finding fulfillment on your own.
Unfortunately, “Sugar” is not available to stream on Netflix yet. But you can buy it on Blu-Ray or DVD, or watch instantly now on Amazon.
Check out the trailer below: