What's this? An inspirational sports flick whose every step doesn't lead up to the climactic Big Game in which the underdog hero must score that touchdown/hit that home run/kick that goal/deck that opponent? Is such a movie even allowed anymore?
Apparently so, because here's Sugar to upend all of the expected clichés and offer a refreshing look at what it really means to be an athlete with all the odds stacked against you. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the husband-and-wife writer-director team behind the indie hit Half Nelson (the classroom drama for which star Ryan Gosling was Oscar-nominated), are too busy trying to learn what makes their characters tick to be wasting time on stale plot mechanics; here, they hone in on a promising young baseball player and end up with a movie that's less about the sport and more about the immigrant experience. As such, it continues a strong trend in this mini-genre that recently birthed The Visitor and Sin Nombre, and yet it's markedly different than either of those pictures.
A nonprofessional actor by the name of Algenis Perez Soto makes an impressive debut as Miguel "Sugar" Santos, who's plucked (like so many others) from a training facility in the Dominican Republic and sent off to the United States to take a lunge at that elusive American Dream. The ultimate prize is, of course, fame and fortune as a star player in the major leagues, but first, Sugar has to work his way up from the minors. He ends up playing for a Single-A outfit in Iowa, where he's reunited with a former chum from back home (Rayniel Rufino) and becomes friends with a Stanford-schooled hot shot (Andre Holland). But despite the kindness of those around him, including the elderly Christians who serve as a host family (and, being baseball nuts, dissect his performance after every game), Sugar feels isolated, frustrated with the language barrier and missing his family back home.
It's at this point where a typical movie might start to focus more on each game's scoreboard than on its central character's inner journey, but Boden and Fleck chart Sugar's odyssey on such a credible trajectory that the third act unexpectedly heads off in a completely different direction than that which we've come to expect from our sports sagas. It would be churlish to reveal how the movie plays out, but suffice to say that nobody strikes out -- least of all the filmmakers.