Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review - Sugar

Judging by their first two pictures, the filmmaking career of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck is going to be an interesting one to follow. They seem to be intent on taking established film genres and playing around with them, to present them in a new and unexpected light.
Half Nelson, the pair's directorial debut, was a fresh spin on the teacher-student dynamic commonly depicted in cinema, basing its story around the relationship between a drug-taking teacher and a young girl from a broken home. Their new film Sugar sets itself up as yet another sports film about a nobody who dreams of being a somebody; a talented baseball player with his eyes on the major leagues. But Sugar isn't really about baseball at all, that's just the world it happens to take place in, and it could just as easily be occurring in any sport or industry that offers a path to riches for the few, and obscurity for those who don't make the cut.

For Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), the dream is very real at the start of the film. Nicknamed Sugar (because he's sweet with the ladies, he claims, while others say it's because he loves dessert), Santos is staying at a training camp somewhere in the Dominican Republic, hoping to impress the visiting American scouts with his pitching skills. When a coach shows him how to throw a curve ball, he repeatedly practices the technique until his powerful arm catches a scout's eye. Sugar is signed up for a season in the US minor leagues with the Kansas City Knights, and this requires him to leave the town he has always lived in for a small farm community in Iowa. For anyone, that would be quite a culture shock, and
Sugar is superb in the way it depicts the challenges and pressures facing a young immigrant in America, and this, rather than baseball, is the film's real subject.

As such, Boden and Fleck spend just as much time exploring the day-to-day trials Santos experiences as they do charting his fluctuating form on the baseball field. He moves in with the Higgins (Anne Whitney and Richard Bull), a kindly elderly couple who habitually rent out rooms to the Knights' new prospects, and who offer him encouragement and advice when his game starts to slip. There's the promise of romance with their granddaughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield), but her mixed messages (she's a flirtatious evangelist) are doubly difficult to read for someone who doesn't know the language and is unfamiliar with the customs. For Sugar, the whole experience is overwhelming, and his form begins to suffer as he struggles with the burden of expectation placed upon him, resulting in him being dropped to the reserves; alone, frustrated, and facing the terrifying prospect of seeing his dream slip away. This is an extraordinarily demanding lead role, and after auditioning hundreds of non-actors in the Dominican Republic, Boden and Fleck struck gold when they found Algenis Perez Soto. He has a natural charisma and seems effortlessly comfortable in front of the camera, and he has the priceless ability to convey a multitude of emotions wordlessly, through his deep eyes and expressive features. Occasionally arrogant and cocky, frequently vulnerable and introspective, Santos is a complex and fully realised character, and Soto captures his spirit magnificently.

I was a fan of
Half Nelson, but this is something else entirely. As a display of directorial craft, it is so superior to Boden and Fleck's previous effort, it's hard to believe that we're talking about the same filmmakers. They immerse us in Sugar's world, creating an authentic, tangible sense of place in every scene, and making us experience the daunting stadia, the bustling arcade, or the wide, empty Iowa plains from his perspective. The tone is carefully measured, with the directors ensuring most of the clich├ęs we come to expect in sporting films are skilfully avoided, and the pacing is faultless; allowing scenes to develop at precisely the speed and rhythm they require. Making an immeasurable contribution, cinematographer Andrij Parekh offers vibrant, evocative images everywhere, with the in-game sequences particularly benefitting from his compositional skills and attention to fine details.

The most surprising, and refreshing thing about
Sugar, however, is the surprising turn of events that occurs in the film's second half, when Miguel considers his options and comes to a momentous decision about his future. It's not the climax I had expected, but it is a brilliant ending nonetheless; one that widens the film's scope beyond the game of baseball, and offers a conclusion far more satisfying and moving than any we might have anticipated. "We've got seventy-five pitchers for less than fifty positions come April." A coach at the training camp says early on, "You do the math."; and Sugar superbly illuminates the cutthroat nature of a world in which so many youngsters are fighting for so few chances. One scene in the film's first half shows Miguel sitting with his classmates, as they learn the phrases they'll need to get by in the US: "Line Drive. Fly Ball. I Got It. Home Run." they repeat robotically. It's a baseball factory, a conveyor belt of talent, and there will be more following the same path with every passing year. One or two will make it, achieving everything they've dreamed of and securing their family's future, but for the vast majority of these hopefuls, life will be a lot closer to Sugar.