A joke holds that there's no "I" in "team" but there is a "me." The bittersweet baseball drama Sugar endorses that point of view by emphasizing the individual points on the diamond, rather than the unifying power of teamwork. Sugar explores the siren song America's national pastime casts on Third World players, but serves as a study in isolation and not the virtues of the melting pot.
Writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck take eager turns at bat following their 2006 hit Half Nelson. The indie drama earned Ryan Gosling a Best Actor Oscar nomination as a high school teacher with a drug problem. Sugar also presents an alienated character study, but trades the inner city for villages in the Dominican Republic and the towns of Iowa. The progress of aspiring young pitcher Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) provides an intriguing perspective on the American dream, but tends to swing at the same themes again and again.
The film introduces Sugar at a baseball practice facility for the ironically named Kansas City Knights of the Dominican Republic. Sugar and his young teammates hone skills like the spike curve ball while awaiting the call from America like immigrants held up at Ellis Island. A scene with Sugar and his friends singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in broken English at a going-away party offers just one sign of how long a shadow America casts on the rest of the world.
Sugar bids goodbye to his impoverished family when he gets invited to take part in spring training in Arizona. Dominican and former World Series MVP Jose Rijo served as an advisor to Sugar, and the film offers a documentary-style look at both rookie ball's competitive atmosphere and Sugar's uniquely Dominican signifiers. Surrounded by excellent players and striving to make the major league, Sugar struggles with pressures from above and below — from the ambitious players who want to replace him and the established ones he wants to replace. He strikes up a friendship with an African-American college star athlete (Andre Holland) and sees a Dominican friend (Rayniel Rufino) wrestle with a lingering injury.
When Sugar gets a break with an Iowa Single A team, the Bridgetown Swing, he moves in with a retired farm couple who prove aggressively opinionated about baseball. The reasoning behind Bridgetown's name isn't exactly subtle: A monster suspension bridge dwarfs the ball field and has overt symbolic value, given Sugar's depiction of a stranger in a strange land. Many of the film's gulfs, however, go unclosed.
The culture clash keeps Sugar from connecting with American (i.e., white) women. Townies pick fights when the black players try to flirt with local girls, and a would-be romance goes nowhere with his host family's devoutly Christian granddaughter. Overall, Sugar finds the United States to be an alien environment. In one sequence, the camera follows close behind the player as he wanders through a hotel lobby, through a gaming arcade and into a bowling alley, the noise slightly distorted, the flashing lights just out of focus.
Boden and Fleck emphasize the language barrier to represent many cultural differences, but Sugar's point often seems to be simply how much it sucks to be in America without knowing English. Despite the minor league setting, the film feels less like Bull Durham than John Sayles' The Brother From Another Planet. Soto as Sugar projects comfort on the screen and has undeniably soulful eyes, but his unpolished acting fails to convey the subtle emotional differences in Sugar's situations. He tends to play the "lonely" scenes the same every time. It doesn't help that near the ending, the soundtrack features a Spanish version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," a lovely rendition of the most overused song in Hollywood.
In its last act, Sugar moves in an unexpected direction that doesn't exactly feel justified, but draws out Boden and Fleck's notions about culture and character. Sugar's late-inning curve ball doesn't quite make the film a grand slam, but serves to bring the filmmakers' ideas home.