At the Movies with Kevin: Sugar

The sun simmers over a populated baseball field at the beginning of “Sugar,” a tremendous new film chronicling the expedition of a Dominican attempting to assimilate into the United States. The cascading landscape admired obviously represents the dreams contained within these people, encompassing more than simply professional baseball and having more to do with the idea of achieving a more affluent existence in an exciting, new, uninhibited world. “Sugar” believes this fairy tale ambition and the reality of the arduous experience for these individuals are vastly contradictory.

The film starts at a Dominican Republic baseball facility in which Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is desperately hoping to receive a contract from a Major League Baseball team with an invitation to Spring Training. Although Sugar is confident in his ability, this wish seems extraordinarily distant until he is taught how to throw a spike curveball, expanding his pitching repertoire and eventually landing him a spot with the Kansas City Knights organization. The celebration that ensues with his family is festive and joyous, something that will be rare in the nervous existence exuded while on the minor league team in Iowa, where any minorities are especially uncommon and treated as outsiders unwelcome in a white-dominated society.

One of the great pleasures of “Sugar” is its complete unpredictability, which persists constantly after he joins the Bridgetown Swing. It seems apparent where the movie is headed at various moments, but always sidesteps conventional payoffs for instances that exhibit a truth within all of us. “Sugar” does not tell a linear tale because it coincides with real life, which is a series of unforeseen paths that lead everyone to their inevitable spiritual homes.

“Sugar” is the second film by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously made the powerful “Half Nelson,” which explored the life of a crack addicted junior high school teacher and was one of the best of 2006. In a way, Dan Dunne, the main character in that movie, and Sugar are kindred spirits in that they are both terribly uncomfortable in the worlds they inhabit but for completely different and poignant reasons. Each film chronicles their journey reaching out to others for comfort, attempting to cope with the loneliness that has accompanied their tumultuous roads to their final destinations. Both films also end on subtle notes, allowing the audience to decipher what it wishes out of the final scene without hammering home any clear message about these character’s uncertain futures.

There are moments of breathtaking beauty, honesty, and brilliant filmmaking. The first shot is completely absorbing and there are many others that achieve a poignancy that is almost unattainable. At one point, Sugar walks through a hotel lobby, blurring everything other than him; this represents the difficulty he has in blending into the dissimilar culture that makes him feel perpetually alone and trapped. Sugar can only see himself and the values and traits that created his personality and appearance, while everyone else seems indistinguishable from each other.

At many times in the film, Sugar sits alone in his bedroom as the corn delicately sways beyond him, the cornerstone of Middle America surrounded by a complete stranger. The most precise moment in exhibiting the chasm between Sugar and this world is when the granddaughter of his host parents asks him to express his thoughts about a subject in Spanish. The filmmakers intelligently decided to refuse putting subtitles on the screen, illustrating that the distance between Sugar and America will never be bridged because of an elementary understanding of not only the differing languages, but also because of these unrelated trials each one experienced.

This is a wonderful movie because it takes personal themes that directly apply to Sugar’s life and makes them universal, forcing us to understand how they could apply to ours. “Sugar” is not simply an immigrant tale or a baseball story, but one about a boy turning into a man through his tribulations in this strange land. In a way, we are all immigrants, attempting to find the best position for ourselves in this unforgiving world. It takes everyone some time to assimilate into our culture until we are comfortable enough to interact with people who are not family members. Everyone has been in Sugar’s position and he has been in ours, but we were lucky enough to travel through this tumultuous time twice, especially in a place that is incredibly unfamiliar.

There is an emotional scene that most accurately articulates the misplacement Sugar is constantly suffocated by when he peers at a shirt that was made in the Dominican Republic and quickly realizes he has more in common with this inanimate object than any fans that cheer in the stands. The world is not entirely unsympathetic of his plight, showing this through the waitress who teaches him to differentiate types of eggs and the stud second baseman whose continuous kindness counteracts the cold demeanor of society. The humanity within Sugar is obvious among those who give a vague attempt to understand him because, like everyone, he is just trying to succeed in a world that often refuses to give lemons even while expecting delicious lemonade in return.

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