By Kim Voynar (originally published during the 2008 Sundance Film Festival)
Following up their critically acclaimed film Half Nelson, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have their newest film, Sugar, at Sundance this year. Boden and Fleck have quite the knack for tackling subjects most people wouldn't think of making a film about (a crack-addicted middle-school teacher in Half Nelson, a young baseball star from the Dominican Republic in Sugar) and making insightful, compelling films about them. This time around, Boden and Fleck take us to the fictional Kansas City Knight's baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, where we meet Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a hotshot young pitcher who was signed to train for the league at the tender age of 16.
The pressure on the kids at the baseball academy is tremendous. While it offers the few who do make it to the top a chance to succeed professionally and financially beyond their wildest dreams, those who don't make the cut are chewed up and spit out by the organization with all the emotional involvement of a stockbroker buying and selling one stock versus another. Sugar has known since he was 10 that he had the talent to pitch and a love of the game. At the academy, he finds it relatively easy to be alpha dog; his pitches are fast and accurate, and he throws strikeouts with impressive ease. Sugar, like most of the boys he grew up with, has always wanted to play baseball professionally -- and he wants to make it to the top. When he gets sent up to play Single-A professional baseball, though, he finds himself swimming in a much bigger pond where the competition is much tougher, and he has to deal with the pressure of the constant "what have you done for me lately" attitude of professional sports.
Sent to Iowa, he stays in a farmhouse owned by Earl and Helen Higgins, an elderly couple who routinely board immigrant ballplayers for the Swing, the local minor-league franchise. On his own in America, Sugar has to learn to navigate a new language and different social mores and customs. When his friend Jorge is cut from the team after a knee injury leaves him unable to play to his previous level, Sugar starts to think about what exactly will happen to him if he can no longer play baseball. As the pressure on him intensifies, he has to make a choice about which path the rest of his life will take.
Soto is an absolute delight as Sugar: handsome, charming and with a killer smile, he's in every scene and carries practically the entire show. Despite its backdrop of baseball, Sugar is more a coming-of-age tale than a sports movie, but the baseball scenes are incredibly shot; in fact, the entire film is just gorgeous, like a painting brought to life. Credit cinematographer Andrij Parekh (who also shot Half Nelson) for that. So many indie films lack that true artistry around looking beautiful on the screen. Boden and Fleck know what they're doing, and I'd expect we'll see many more films from this pair in the coming years. They're just warming up.