Because baseball looms so large in America’s self-image, baseball movies have an unfortunate tendency toward the pompous and the grandiose. Think of Robert Redford smacking a climactic homer into the park’s overhead lights and running the bases beneath a triumphant shower of sparks in The Natural, or the way that Field of Dreams suggests that everything we strive for stems from an unconscious desire to play just one more game with dear old Dad. Sugar, written and directed by the husband-wife team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), may be the first notable anti-mythic baseball film since Bull Durham, though it substitutes earnest liberal piety for goofy comedy, often to its detriment. So eager are Boden and Fleck to avoid sports-movie clichés and sentimental uplift that they swing too far in the opposite direction; rather than soar, the film kind of plods.
Actually, it seems pretty clear that the filmmakers have little interest in baseball per se. Their subject is the recent influx of players from various Latin American countries—more specifically, how these foreigners adjust to their assigned role as part of the American Dream, only to discover, in most cases, that their new home has little use for them. The title character, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (played by nonprofessional Algenis Perez Soto), bounces from a Dominican Republic shantytown to minor-league quasi-glory in mystifying Iowa to the unforgiving streets of New York City, all the while struggling to hold on to his sense of self. We see him lovingly patronized by the farm family who lodges him, tempted by steroids, baffled by American women and, ultimately, chewed up and spat out by the machine that imported him. Except that Sugar is far too stubborn and resilient to play anyone’s passive victim.
He’s also, to be honest, a bit of a bore. Half Nelson turned the inspirational-teacher movie on its head, but it also leaned hard on a live-wire performance by rising star Ryan Gosling, who brought charisma and credibility to a potentially hackneyed scenario. Soto seems like a nice guy, but he has the placid, vaguely startled expression of a dairy cow, which only reinforces the sense that he’s being milked, if not prepped for slaughter. And I haven’t mentioned any other characters because nobody but Sugar makes any real impression. Boden and Fleck seem more invested in his circumstances than in his psyche, and consequently their film, for all its scrupulous observational rigor, suffers from the same faintly dull worthiness as much of John Sayles’ recent work, committed to balance and fairness at the expense of dramatic juice.
Still, it’s a pleasant enough ride, and there’s a certain amount of merit simply in telling the unheralded flip side of the David Ortiz story, particularly in a country that treats the unsuccessful as if they were invisible. Since it becomes clear fairly quickly that this film, unlike almost every other sports movie ever made, isn’t building to a Big Game, you never quite know where you’re headed, which is always refreshing. And Boden and Fleck aren’t above indulging in a little fish-out-of-water comedy, as when Sugar and his Latin American teammates hit a local diner and find themselves unable to order anything but French toast, as those are somehow the only English food words any of them have ever learned. These are talented filmmakers—they just seem to have temporarily misplaced their passion in their laudable but misguided attempt at social-realist muckraking. They can do better, and will.