Baseball has been held up for decades, maybe forever, as the embodiment of the American dream, and that idealism lives on today even in the face of steroid scandals and millionaire benchwarmers. But somewhere in this global economy baseball became a universal fantasy, for Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Cubans all dreaming of escaping poverty to play ball in la Estados.
Franchise owners, predictably, have cashed in on this dream, and now nearly every major league baseball team runs a training camp in the Dominican Republic, plucking raw talent from the slums and teaching them a bit of English before, if they're lucky, shipping them off to the minor leagues. Hundreds of young men come to America in this way every year, and Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez aside, most of them never make it beyond the farm leagues.
That's the story that Half-Nelson directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are telling in Sugar, a documentary-style drama exploring this very unique angle of the immigrant experience. The title character, played subtly by newcomer Algenis Perez Soto, is a quiet teenager, a hero pitcher back in his neighborhood and one of the most promising residents at the Kansas City Royals training camp. Sugar is sent to training camp in Arizona, and from there to the single-A leagues in Iowa, encountering a mix of fellow Dominicans and Americans all anxiously awaiting their shot at the next level up.
Boden and Fleck's observant script avoids the typical highs and lows of the game, so much that Sugar doesn't resemble a sports movie so much as a character study. The movie is made up of a series of moments that add depth to both Sugar's world and the unfamiliar one he moves to. An intimate encounter with his girlfriend in the annex he hopes to build as a bedroom for his grandmother. A night drinking with his camp friends in the dugout of the practice field. A struggle to order eggs at a diner, only to be helped by a kind waitress. We watch Sugar grow and adapt both as a player and a man, even as we realize all the pitfalls he'll face as he moves up in this relentless sport.
In Iowa Sugar lives with a strict older couple, the Higgins (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull), avid baseball fans who have hosted Dominican players in their home for years. They introduce him to their evangelical granddaughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield), who becomes a new romantic interest for Sugar even as he recognizes the racial and language barriers between them. And friendships with fellow Dominican player Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) and Stanford grad Brad (Andre Holland) introduce Sugar to the possibilities of staying in the U.S., even if this increasingly difficult sport doesn't wind up being the ticket he needs.
Sugar's narrative, while never particularly intense or plot-heavy, goes in unexpected directions near the end, and Fleck and Boden aren't afraid to withhold information about their main character in order to offer the audience some surprises. But the real joy of the movie is Fleck and Boden's careful filmmaking, the delicate moments their handheld camera can capture and how some clever editing, done by Boden, reveals to us what characters may not even know themselves.
Avoiding most controversial issues regarding both baseball and illegal immigration, Sugar is instead a deeply felt, personal story, exposing in very specific microcosm the struggle experienced by thousands of immigrants each year. With intelligent neo-realist style and a generous spirit, Boden and Fleck have made a wide-ranging film that should resonate with every audience.