Saturday, May 9, 2009

How Sweet It Is


Sugar is not your average baseball film. There is no: big game, ornery manager, greedy owner, hotshot rookie, final-inning-with-two-outs-and-a-two-runs-behind, improbable losing streak, improbable winning streak, groupie-with-a-heart-of-gold, veteran comeback or a guy off the street who becomes the team's star. In fact, we never know the standings, who the opposition is or even the full roster of players. Instead, there is Miguel "Sugar" Santos and a few other guys from the Dominican Republic who dream of playing pro to send some money back home. But this is just a small part of a film that uses baseball to paint a moving portrait of the immigrant experience.

The second feature by filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck follows their debut, Half Nelson, (about a teacher - who happens to be a drug-addict - trying to inspire his students), and once again turns genre expectations on its head. To be certain, the first half of Sugar is about what you might expect. It chronicles Sugar Santos and his teammates' struggles to make an impression and move up the ranks in the fiercely competitive and unforgiving world of minor league baseball. But what happens in the second half of the film - which has been erroneously cited in some reviews as a counter-intuitive narrative shift - is something brave and beautiful. Without spoiling the film, Boden and Fleck, use the character of Sugar and the merciless nature of professional play to create a cinematic dialogue about spiritual fulfillment, community and personal identity. Sugar's decisions in the second half of the film are difficult, but as he finally finds his place in America it's a bittersweet moment that eloquently captures the conflicting feelings of vanished dreams and the excitement of a new, unknown life that he will forge.

While the real baseball world continues to be rocked by scandals, there is no better time to see Sugar, a gentle reminder of those to whom it's more than just a game, but a ticket to a better life and unheard of opportunities.

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