Not only is baseball season underway but here comes the first baseball movie of the year although, in a deeper level, it’s really about the immigrant experience.
With dreams of playing in Yankee Stadium, buying a Cadillac he can drive on water and – most of all – pulling his family out of poverty, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a confident 19 year-old pitching prospect from San Pedro De Macoris in the Dominican Republic. That’s the Caribbean island where Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Juan Marichal, Rico Carty, Manny Motta, Jose Reyes, David Ortiz (Big Papi) and the Alou brothers got their start. Dominican players are not subject to the major league draft and can be signed by any team when they turn 16.
Yet when Sugar is invited by the (fictitious) Kansas City Knights to spring training in Arizona to play in the United States’ minor leagues, culture shock sets in. Nevertheless, his mean knuckle curveball earns him a trip to the Single-AQ team in Iowa, where he boards with the older, conservative Higgins family out on their isolated farm. But because he speaks little English, there’s no kindred spirit for him to talk to, except Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), and Sugar’s understandably lonely. Eventually, on his quest for self-discovery, he finds himself questioning the social and economic consequences of his lifelong ambition.
Writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”), a married couple who live in Brooklyn, have crafted a thoughtful drama which, while fictional, is evocative of the reality-based basketball-themed “Hoop Dreams.” Essentially, it examines what happens to aspiring big league “beisbol” players who go through the process and don’t make it. Underscoring the essential believability is the fact that long-limbed Algenis Perez Soto was a real-life baseball player before he was cast in this film and that Dominican former World Series MVP Jose Rijo was Boden/Fleck’s principal advisor; Rijo also appears briefly as an actor.
In Spanish and English, with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sugar” is an authentic 8 – a timely tale about trying to score.