★ ★ ★ ★
Sugar follows Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto), a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic as he attempts to work his way up to the Major Leagues. Unlike nearly every sports film I've seen, its primary focus is on the characters, rather than the game. Baseball is merely the backdrop. Far more interesting than the outcome of any single game is the struggle of Dominican players trying to turn pro. They live in strictly controlled dormatories, earning virtually no money. Unlike their American counterparts, there are no scholarships; no frat parties. Either they make it big, or they're back to the slums. The writer director team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have portrayed the struggles of latino immigrants in a way that is both candid, and hopeful. Unless you count wrestling as a sport, this is easily the best sports movie I've ever seen.
Like The Wrestler, Sugar can hardly even be considered a sports movie. Games come and go without us knowing, or caring who won. When Miguel joins Kansas City's minor league affiliate, he has a rough, and at times comical transition into American life. His English is so bad that even ordering breakfast is a struggle. The Higgins', his adoptive American family (Ann Whitney, Richard Bull) are fanatical about their baseball, and have taken in several latino ball players on behalf of their local squad. Miguel can barely communicate with them, though he constantly feels pressure to perform well for them. He is alone, save his Domincan friend Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) in rural Iowa, hardly a place where you can get by on Spanish. He takes an interest in Anne (Ellary Porterfield), the Higgins' grand daughter, who attempts to recruit him into her all white church group. Awkwardness ensues.
American baseball proves to be different from how young Dominicans picture it. There is no quick route to success, and Dominicans do not rule the game. Miguel has a promising start to the season, but is sidelined by a minor foot injury. Jorge is cut from the team, and decides to move to New York. When Miguel returns to the team, he is unable to return to his previous form. Encouragement from his teammates, particularly Johnson (Andre Holland) keep him going for a while, but a combination of frustration and a single experiment with painkillers put him on the chopping block. Instead of accepting a relief position, he fled to New York to find his friend Jorge. Dreams rarely die with a bang; they usually end with a thud, and a shrug of the shoulders.
Miguel's savings quickly evaporate in New York, so he begins to work under the table at a diner where Jorge used to work. The two are eventually re-united, and play together in a men's league filled with former Dominican farm team players. The film ends with a tribute to these men. Dominican boys who came to America chasing the dream of major league baseball, only to default into a pursuit of the American Dream--or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Likely service workers, and likely in the country illegally, they find happiness acting out their childhood dreams on a modest field in the Bronx. It is the quintessential American story--a story that hearkens back to the days when the poem at the base of Lady Liberty was more than just an inscription.