The United States of America
I can literally point my finger to the exact moment when I knew that Sugar would be a great film. It was a scene about 20-30 minutes into the film where the protagonist, a Dominican baseball player named Miguel “Sugar” Santos, sits alone at a diner in the wee hours of the morning. Equipped with only a few clumsy words of English, Sugar tries to order eggs. The waitress asks how he would like them. Fried? Scrambled? Sunny side up? Not understanding, Sugar bows his head and quietly asks for the only item on the menu that he is familiar with: French toast. Having worked in the food industry for several years, I thought to myself, “A real waitress would understand and bring him eggs anyway.” And what do you know, she did! Gobsmacked, I sat and watched as she brought Sugar three different kinds of eggs and taught him how to order them. It was as if the film had literally read my mind.
It was right there that I realized that I was not watching an average film. From there on I started watching a little bit more closely. I was amazed to realize that not a single character, no matter how small, was one-dimensional or flat. These were real humans with genuine motivations, hopes, dreams, and fears. They were not just mannequins designed to spout dialogue or progress the plot. The people in this film were not characters, they were human beings.
Perhaps you may think that I am over-reacting. I disagree. As I look out over the state of popular cinema these days, I am disappointed to find that more and more films are content to let stereotypes and archetypes define their characters and their actions. It has gotten to a point where you can predict how characters will react to certain situations. But in Sugar, we don’t know what the characters will do next. They aren’t preordained to succeed or fail. Instead, we are given the pleasure of watching them interact with their world, make decisions, and develop.
We first meet our protagonist Sugar as a young Dominican baseball pitcher trying to get signed by an American baseball team. Dreaming of one day playing for the New York Yankees, Sugar attends a baseball training camp where he learns such essentials as how to say “You’re out” in English. But Sugar is not alone. He is surrounded by dozens upon dozens of other hopefuls with dreams of purple waves of grain. After all, to the young men of the Dominican Republic, getting signed represents one of the only guaranteed sources of upward social mobility. One wonders if half of them even enjoy playing baseball. For Sugar, the siren call of the United States is a piercing shriek. Miraculously, Sugar is invited to spring training in the states, courtesy of the Kansas City Knights.
It isn’t long before Sugar gets noticed for his devastating knuckle curve and is signed for a Single A affiliate in Iowa. The wide plains of Middle America are as foreign as the surface of Mars to Sugar, having grown up in crowded, urban squalor. Even more bizarre is his foster family who takes him in, the Higgins. Sugar would be hard pressed to find a more red-meat-and-potatoes, salt of the earth American family even if he dived into a Norman Rockwell painting. While they desperately try to be loving and accommodating, the language and cultural gap only serve to increase Sugar’s uncontrollable sense of isolation.
Indeed, in his pursuit of the American Dream, Sugar falls into the American Wasteland. He watches as one by one his friends are cut from the team and sent back to the Dominican Republic. When he injures himself during a game, a new Dominican pitcher almost immediately pops up to take his place. He finds himself attracted to the Higgin’s grand-daughter, who encapsulates everything that American women are renowned for. But her staunch conservative values prevent her from pursuing a pre-marital relationship. He comes to rely on drugs to give him the edge needed to overcome his injury and pitch.
Eventually, he realizes that he is living the American Nightmare. So one day he jumps off the team bus and travels to New York City. As he careens from one hotel to another, he slowly starts to rebuild his life, first taking a job at a dinner before gaining a better job as a carpenter. As he reconstructs his life from the ground up, he comes to realize true personal fulfillment. Is it any surprise that at the end of the film he picks up baseball again? He joins up with a league of immigrants who had all come to the States with dreams of playing baseball, only to be cut. He becomes one more face in the crowd of baseball’s rejects. And yet, in doing so he finds a new place in life. This time, he plays because he wants to.
Sugar is a true gem of a film. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who both wrote and directed the film, based the film off the experiences of real Dominican immigrants who came to the States to play baseball. They said, “The stories we heard were so fascinating that it became what we were writing before we'd even decided it was our next project.” Perhaps that is why the universe of the film feels so real and alive. Or perhaps it has something to do with the design of the film itself. Much like Bresson and Ozu, the film seems interested in the character and inner humanity of its titular character. It seems to almost disregard the plot in preference of focusing on his inner struggles and turmoil. The film is more interested in how difficult it is for him to order breakfast in English than it is for him to succeed in the Minors. And much like Bresson and Ozu, Sugar is not afraid to take its time. The film is two hours long and let me tell say, you feel every one of those minutes. But that isn’t a bad thing. Here is a movie that is unafraid of boring its audience. It has a story to tell and it is going to tell it on its own terms. If you don’t like it then you can leave.
But for those of you who wish to stay and watch, you will be treated to one of the greatest films of the last ten years that nobody has seen. Perhaps its unwillingness to compromise its artistic integrity in favor of audience-oriented flair and style was responsible for its poor distribution. Outside of a few film festivals, almost nobody has heard of it. And that is a true shame. Sugar hearkens back to a time when directors and storytellers actually had something that they wanted to say. It single-handedly defies the concept that they don’t make them like they used to.