Diamond in the rough

Sugar defies baseball-movie cliches -- and builds, almost unnoticeably, to exhilarating effect
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All wound up

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Co-writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck made their feature debut in 2006 with Half Nelson, a movie with an iffy concept — an at-risk Brooklyn middle school student discovers her teacher is a part-time crackhead but they become best buds anyway — somehow rendered utterly plausible. That same keen sense of atmospheric and character detail, as well as resistance to sensationalism or cliché, is on display again in their new film, Sugar. The film has taken its time getting to theaters since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival more than a year ago, but it's likely to be one of the best films of 2009, as it certainly would have been of 2008.

Sugar is also possibly the best narrative film ever about the world of pro baseball, and that's an opinion lifted from people who care a lot more about America's pastime than me. It may not have the sentimental or fantasy appeal of 1988's Bull Durham, 1989's Field of Dreams, 1984's The Natural, etc., but as with Half Nelson, Boden and Fleck create something that's at last deeply satisfying, though their happy ending isn't at all one you (or the protagonist) might've planned two hours earlier.

Here we have baseball, football, and basketball as rivals, but in the Dominican Republic there's just baseball, a national obsession as well as major export. There are more Dominicans in Major League Baseball than any other offshore population. For everyone who reaches that status, there are umpteen contenders, their aspirations often fueled by a desire to raise themselves and family members above the poverty line. That's the case for Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto), a coolly self-possessed 19-year-old whose big eyes are always watchful and guarded, suggesting a mind sharply focused on advancement despite his low-key demeanor. He's called Sugar because, he brags, "I'm sweet with the ladies" — but more seriously, "I've got the sweetest knuckle curve you've ever seen." His hopes of breaking into the majors are everybody's, from his girlfriend and mother to the hometown friends who'll live vicariously through his success.

His pitching skills get him plucked from Boca Chica baseball academy to a cattle-call camp in Phoenix where a lot of other Dominicans await their big chance — or discover it will never come. Sugar, however, gets hand-picked for the minor league Kansas City Knights where, after a fumbling start, he looks like star material.

But as the dream grows nearer, so does Sugar's evolving sense of insecurity and isolation. He's absorbed almost no English, so coaching instructions, teammate camaraderie, and even restaurant ordering remain blank mysteries. He's housed with a well-meaning farm family whose Presbyterian pieties are equally foreign (despite his own crucifix-kissing before each game). When their corn-fed granddaughter sends mixed signals his way — seemingly more interested in spreading salvation than locking lips — our sexually experienced protagonist can only read her behavior as duplicitous. Having left school at 16, he's intimidated by teammates like Brad (Andre Holland), a million-dollar draftee who's always got his Stanford degree to fall back on.

Boden and Fleck did their research and then some. To their further credit, it's all so fully integrated Sugar feels more verité than instructive. Like the performance of Soto (who'd never acted before, and might not again), the film doesn't outline its agenda or emotions — indeed, some might find it a little too internalized and averse to melodrama. Yet it does exert a spell, building almost unnoticeably until the cumulative effect quietly exhilarates.

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