Call it the Dominican Dream.
The small Caribbean country produces more good baseball players per square mile than any place else on earth. Every Big League franchise has a an academy there, where prospects live and learn the game under strict supervision, and with the hope of getting signed, invited to spring training, landing on a minor league club in the States and then fulfilling the biggest dream of all: making a Major League roster.
Miguel "Sugar" Santos is one such player, a lithe pitcher with a wicked knuckle curve signed by the fictional Kansas City Knights. Sugar follows his odyssey from the Dominican Republic, where he attends baseball academy during the week and returns to his humble home life on weekends (and encounters older guys who have chased the Dream only to have it dashed), to a minor league team in small-town Iowa and beyond.
The beyond, which I won't detail here, is the most surprising part of Sugar, and what ultimately helps it transcend the standard sports movie. Suffice to say that the Dominican Dream evolves into a version of the American Dream.
Still, Sugar relies too much on conventional tropes.
During his first start in Single A ball, the stands smattered with whitebread Iowans, Sugar starts poorly, then after a pep talk by a an infielder, a fellow Dominican, he mows down the opposition. During a trip to a local bar, Sugar dances too closely with an apple-cheeked white girl and a frat boy jumps him. Bigotry, check that one off the list. Sugar gets injured and his career trajectory is seriously hampered; Sugar takes drugs (probably amphetamines) and they backfire. A quick-cut collage set to a TV on the Radio song (bonus points there) takes us through the first part of Sugar's season on the diamond. Seen that before?
All of these hills and valleys are ably traversed by first-time actor Algenis Perez Sota, who once aspired to the baseball academy and was discovered on a softball field during the producers' Dominican-wide casting search. Sota is largely convincing, if a bit bland; his main countenances seem to be various degrees of brooding. He was never a pitcher in real life, but manages to come off as authentic on the mound. Sota anchors game sequences that won't insult baseball fans.
As is often the case with sports films, the best stuff takes place off the field. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden — whose first feature was the wrenching Half Nelson, which earned Ryan Gosling an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor as a heroin-addicted schoolteacher — do an admirable job of examining the Dominican Dream's cultural implications. Sugar, an accomplished carpenter, is intent on building a table for his beloved mother, and that table acts as a something-to-fall-back-on signifier for the real possibility that he will fail to achieve the Dream.
The Spanish-speaking Latino ballplayer's assimilation into rural America is deftly handled. Living with an elderly couple who bleed for the local Class A team, he bonds with them over time, culminating in one particularly touching scene when Sugar seeks comfort after an on-field tantrum. He has a complicated relationship with the couple's strawberry-haired granddaughter. There's an attraction between the two, but the girl holds Bible meetings in the basement. Hanky panky is out of the question, but not because he's dark-skinned Dominican, because she's safeguarding her virginity. (Sugar never looks more fish-out-of-water than when he attends one such Bible gathering of fresh-faced Presbyterians — yet he prays into his crucifix before playing.)
Ultimately, Sugar is a solid melding of baseball movie and immigrant tale. It's fairy orthodox in tone and could have benefited from the filmmakers' more avant-garde instincts. Then again, the only sports-themed film I can think of that successfully used the avant-garde was Raging Bull. Aspiring to something of that artistic calibre might have resulted in a film that ended up high and outside. Sugar is not a homerun, but it's far from a strikeout.