Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: 'Sugar' (B+)

By Chase Kahn

The writer-director tag team of Ryan Gossling's Oscar vehicle Half Nelson are back with their follow-up in Sugar, an immigrant tale by way of sports drama. Whatever pre-conceived notions you have towards movies of this ilk, drop the cynicism at the door.

Sugar is (in contrast of its title) never completely interested in the physical and mental battle on the field. It's far more interested -- and successful -- in showing the cultural and social challenges of these Dominican, Cuban and Puerto Rican-born ballplayers who quickly realize that performing on the diamond is just half the battle.

Algenis Perez Soto plays the title character, a hot-shot pitcher with a live arm who moves to the U.S. in the Kansas City system (no, not the Royals) and starts at Single-A Bridgeport, Iowa after shining at a Knights-run Dominican baseball academy back home. Soto plays the character so genuinely, it wouldn't come as a surprise to me to read he actually was a minor league prospect and still is. Sugar has a great deal of humor and coming-of-age scent about it, but the tone never really wavers from a tragedy -- bleak and brutally honest.

One beautifully subtle scene early on in the Dominican shows Miguel (aka Sugar) chatting with an older kid who says that he threw 98 in AA for the Dodgers. Miguel calls his bluff and asks him what he's doing back home -- the man's cocky grin turns blank and Miguel turns his attention towards the beer in his hand. Sugar is here to tell us that these baseball imports, regardless of talent or confidence, have no recollection towards the cultural and social challenges involved with making it to the big leagues -- the ugly truth is that most of them won't even get close.

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