Quick, think of your favorite sports film. How does it end? With an exciting final victory, of course. Over tremendous odds, our heroes muster all they can find of that elusive commodity, heart, to triumph over foes who are better funded and better looking, or at least - as in D2: The Mighty Ducks - mean and Icelandic.
The foe in the funny, wonderfully ambiguous, sweetly woeful baseball film Sugar is harder to define. If anything, the foe is the massive entertainment enterprise that is professional American sports. Like the movie and music businesses, the sports machine sucks in promising young stars, grants them seasons of glory, then spits them out when the next exciting thing happens along.
The promising young phenomenon in Sugar is Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a young Dominican who, like many Dominicans, struggles in poverty. But there is one difference: Sugar has a killer pitching arm. As the film begins, he is at the Kansas City Royals' training camp in Boca Chico. When he is not at camp he drinks with friends, canoodles with his girlfriend, dabbles in carpentry.
Then, with other Dominicans, he is invited to spring training in Phoenix. They gaze wide-eyed at the garish commercial sprawl. They excitedly order porn on the hotel TV. At the local diner they learn how to order one dish in English, french toast, and order it again and again. Sugar shines in training, and he is summoned to a minor-league team in Iowa. There he stays with a kindly older couple who are obsessed with baseball. They are hospitable and accommodating, and they specify only a few rules of the house ("No chicas in the bedroom!").
The scenes in Iowa are at the core of the film. Sugar soon has his hometown crowds cheering. He's a baseball natural, even as he reveals to a stunned teammate that he has never heard of Babe Ruth or Roberto Clemente.
Action also takes place off the field. Sugar enters into a flirtation with his hosts' granddaughter Ann (Ellary Porterfield). She is a choir singer and youth worker at the Presbyterian church. Her spiritual life is the source of the film's best sight gag, a non-reaction reaction shot of devoutly Catholic Sugar in the pews as the choir sings "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" with energy, if not tunefulness.
There is unspoken racial tension in Sugar and Ann's fleeting romance, and there is more overt racial tension in other aspects of Sugar's Iowa stay. The film handles its racial themes with smarts and delicacy, which is a testament to Sugar's co-writers and co-directors, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who also collaborated on the 2006 Ryan Gosling film Half Nelson. That film likewise handled racial matters with grace and humor, and no small amount of discomfort. Much of Sugar's good humor owes to a remarkable star turn by Soto, a beautiful young man who injects sly wit into his lines.
What's lovely about Sugar is the slowly emerging truth that it's not merely a fine sports movie but also a penetrating film about the American immigrant experience, in the thoughtful tradition of films like Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson and much of Mira Nair's oeuvre. Sugar also is a film about young people struggling with their talents, their ambitions, their families' expectations. Yes, Sugar has a killer pitching arm. Will it get him through all of life?