A Baseball Saga With A Human Story At Its Heart

Santos pitching i

A wicked throwing arm carries Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) from his hometown in the Dominican Republic to the farm system for the fictional Kansas City Knights. Denton Hanna/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Denton Hanna/Sony Pictures Classics
Santos pitching

A wicked throwing arm carries Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) from his hometown in the Dominican Republic to the farm system for the fictional Kansas City Knights.

Denton Hanna/Sony Pictures Classics

Sugar

  • Directors: Anna Boden,                   Ryan Fleck
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 120 minutes

Rated R: Language, sexuality and drug use

(Recommended)

Clips and Quotes

Watch scenes from Sugar, and listen to Melissa Block's conversation with filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck:

Santos under fireworks i

Santos earns his fair share of triumphs — but ultimately Sugar is about finding the thrill in quieter pleasures. Fernando Calzada/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Fernando Calzada/Sony Pictures Classics
Santos under fireworks

Santos earns his fair share of triumphs — but ultimately Sugar is about finding the thrill in quieter pleasures.

Fernando Calzada/Sony Pictures Classics

When I say that Sugar is the nickname of a poor Dominican ballplayer — a 19-year-old pitcher whose unhittable curveball earns him a shot at the major leagues — you'll likely see a whole story arc in your head.

Entirely understandable: Formulaic sports flicks have slammed home every possible permutation of the rags-to-riches (and sometimes back to rags) story, to the point that many viewers have gotten used to seeing curveballs coming long before characters do.

Happily, filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don't do formula, as they proved in the unexpectedly unnerving Half Nelson — which seemed like a conventionally inspirational teacher saga right up until the heroic young teacher turned out to have a heroin habit.

In Sugar, they again head off in unexpected directions, focusing their fish-out-of-water tale on class, ethnic, religious and immigration tensions as much as on baseball.

And so scenes that would usually be mere setup for the main event get lingered over and allowed to become engaging in their own right. The film's lucky few Latino youngsters — recruited from Dominican slums to play for minor-league farm teams stateside — adapt to cold weather, blend awkwardly with host families, figure out how to make themselves understood in the U.S, try to interpret the confusing mixed signals they're getting from American girls and, in general, deal with loneliness far from their homes.

Which is not to suggest that the baseball diamond gets slighted. The filmmakers have mostly cast from Dominican playing fields rather than from acting studios — Algenis Perez Soto, the accomplished first-time performer who plays Miguel "Sugar" Santos, was himself a teen ballplayer — so game and practice sequences have an easy authenticity from the start.

Santos is, as his nickname suggests, a sweet kid, easygoing and confident as he dominates the pitcher's mound in his hometown. And he carries enough of that assurance with him to his training camp in the Iowa heartland that you half expect his story to go all field-of-dreamy when he gets there.

Instead, intriguing complications crop up: social ones with the daughter of his hosts; and professional ones centered on an injury and on a rising star who starts stealing his thunder. Thrown off stride, the young pitcher ... well, you should really discover for yourself where his story goes.

Suffice it to say, the filmmakers know that even wildly talented athletes don't always go — or even choose to go — the distance. And that they serve up enough quirky details — Sugar ordering French toast every day for breakfast until a waitress, realizing he doesn't know the English for anything else, teaches him the difference between "over easy" and "scrambled" — that you'll be game to follow Sugar wherever his story leads.

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