Sports in the US, much like Hollywood, presents itself as a celebration of star power and those who make it, while rarely pausing to examine the many more who are discarded, exploited, and very often ultimately destroyed human beings. Unless, that is, their stories render them passing curiosities as profitable, lurid gossip fodder for the tabloids.
The sports drama Sugar is a rare treat in that regard, a tenderly told tale about aspiring professional ball players in a game that has evolved into ruthless baseball capitalism. Co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who first grabbed attention with the splendid, race-conscious Half Nelson, Sugar delves with uncommon sensitivity and uncanny scrutiny, into the reality-based plight of one of the many promising workingclass immigrant Latino youth brought to the US by baseball profiteers, to compete for the barely existing few positions on the minor league teams as an unlikely stepping stone into big time sports.
Algenis Perez Soto projects a gentle radiance as Miguel, a vulnerable Afro-Dominican teen transported from his impoverished San Pedro De Macoris village to Arizona and then Iowa. Miguel is determined to fulfill his sweatshop worker mom’s hopes for him, as he aspires to the immigrant American Dream.
But he’s feeling more than a little homesick, emotionally isolated, and without any grasp of the English language beyond some sports slang. And lacking subtitles while succumbing to a bit of stage fright on the mound, are the least of his compounded predicaments. Miguel, as with all the other eager athletes preceding and following him on that precarious and punishing competitive food chain, is worth no more as a human being to his greedy, fickle handlers (claiming a third of any income), or his opportunistic farm country white host family, than the variable quality of his impressive curve ball. And when that fails, Miguel must agonize over his priorities and what values really matter in life, as ideas about fame and fortune rudely collide with notions of enduring personal fulfillment on this planet.
This exceptional and rare film touching on the bittersweet US immigrant of color experience, does falter when it comes to one important aspect of this particular story. And that’s the dual exploitative nature of Afro-Dominicans in baseball here. Abused immigrants twice over already, since they’re subjected to racism in their own land, these athletes with roots in San Pedro De Macoris were originally uprooted from other countries, in particular Haiti and Jamaica, to cut cane in that sugar growing region of the DR.
Hence the name Sugar derives primarily from that area, not as a nickname unique to the troubled protagonist as we’re encouraged to believe. But the misleading plot device in no way diminishes the extraordinary breadth and cultural solidarity of this eloquent workingclass story.
Sony Pictures Classics
3 1/2 stars