By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009
In 2007 Ryan Gosling earned an Oscar nomination for "Half Nelson," an astonishingly good debut by the writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. With the moving, absorbing drama "Sugar," Boden and Fleck not only avoid the sophomore slump, they demolish it, delivering a film of rare intelligence, beauty and compassion.
The film's title refers to its main character, Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a teenage baseball player in the Dominican Republic, who, early in the film, is recruited to a Class AAA ballclub in rural Iowa. Living with a devout elderly couple and striking up a tentative friendship with their granddaughter, Sugar navigates an entirely foreign life, including ordering food in English (he can manage only "French toast"), coping with the pressures of big-league scouts and competitive teammates, and finally coming to terms with the American dream he's been so doggedly pursuing.
The filmmakers scoured the parks and ballfields of the Dominican Republic, where much of "Sugar" was filmed, to find the right actor to play their title character. After seeing more than 400 candidates, they found Algenis Pérez Soto, a onetime aspiring baseball player whose loping physical grace and mesmerizing face make him an ideal leading man. (The filmmakers clearly have a knack for casting nonprofessional actors; they found another untrained but utterly natural screen presence, Shareeka Epps, to play opposite Gosling in "Half Nelson.") In a part that demands few words but hugely expressive physicality, Pérez Soto almost immediately earns viewers' empathy as he embarks on Sugar's odyssey, fueled by the high hopes of his friends and family back home.
Uncannily timed on the heels of a recent scandal involving a Dominican player who lied about his name and age to be recruited by the Washington Nationals, "Sugar" relays in just a few eloquent scenes just how high the stakes are for these young men. (José Rijo, the real-life Nationals official who was fired as a result of the episode, plays the head of Sugar's baseball academy.) We watch Sugar being drilled on the field, then in classrooms learning English phrases like, "I've got it" and "fly ball," and we follow him as he visits his home town, where he's building a new house for his mother and where, once he's recruited to play in the States, long-lost "relatives" come out of the woodwork to get a piece of the glory.
Boden and Fleck have an easy, unhurried style, which suits this story well, especially in capturing the lilting rhythms of a minor league baseball game on a balmy summer night. (The Iowa scenes were filmed in the gorgeous river city of Davenport.) Most important, the filmmakers genuinely respect not only their title character but also everyone he meets, even Midwestern churchgoers who in so many other indie movies would be reduced to punch lines. The couple Sugar boards with are played by the terrific character actors Ann Whitney and Richard Bull, who give their characters just enough vinegar to stave off saccharine sentimentality. And Andre Holland delivers a brief but impressive performance as one of Sugar's teammates who turns the Dominican on to Roberto Clemente and the band TV on the Radio.
These are the cultural transactions and vagrant moments of connection that drive "Sugar," which never goes precisely where you think it will and culminates in a surprising and deeply affecting climax. Along the way, Boden and Fleck imbue their unfussy filmmaking style with bravura gestures, such as a breathtaking tracking shot when Sugar takes a disorienting walk through an Iowa hotel. Like the games themselves, which are filmed with you-are-there realism, the shot isn't just technically impressive but emotionally expressive. Much like the boxing in "Raging Bull," the baseball in "Sugar" is used, not as the focus itself, but as an arena for the far more complicated psychology of the main character.
As embodied by Pérez Soto, that character is sure to stay with viewers for a long time to come. (A shot, late in the movie, of Sugar simply contemplating where he's been and where he's going, a myriad emotions playing silently across his face, might be the most quietly shattering film moment of the year so far.) "Sugar" gets the sports right, which will guarantee its appeal to baseball fans. But more important, it gets the soul right, which makes it a must-see for everyone. I know, I know, but it must be said: "Sugar" is a home run.
Sugar (114 minutes, in English and Spanish with subtitles, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, sexuality and some drug use.