Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's expansive Sugar is an immigrant story framed by American baseball's farm system. Its focus is Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a Dominican Republic native with basic carpentry skills and a promising pitching arm. The film opens on a pristine, US-run, Dominican-based academy where Sugar and his Spanish-speaking peers learn regulation baseball and its English terminology. They occupy dorms but go home on weekends, which occasions a shift from the camp's rigidity to the vibrancy and looseness of Sugar's town. Here, kids enthusiastically play baseball in a dirt pitch far removed from the academy's vast, manicured diamond. Sugar's access to legitimate ball makes him the king of his village and he indulges everyone's vague fantasy - including his own - that he'll master an industry, and a country, he barely knows. Sugar's drafted, training first in Arizona before pitching on the fictitious Bridgetown Swing in Iowa. He sends his earnings home via Western Union.
The lush, colourful Dominican gives way to Iowa's bisected blue sky and green ground, its buildings crammed along the horizon. Sugar is billeted in a rural farmhouse by a pair of elderly, God-fearing baseball devotees. They're knowledgeable and critical, and take a proprietary interest in their charge's progress. Sugar often engages in hushed prayer, especially on the mound. His culture's spirituality, and its love of baseball, permeate their lives. The Iowans, on the other hand, formalize church and ball, each a pulpit from which to promote their values. In a panoramic shot, an impressive bridge looms over the team's stadium, a symbol of the town's wealth and settlement. The diamond's adjacency proves baseball's pride of place, but the citizens interpret their devotion as a right to hurl insults for mistakes. They forget the players are indivisible from the sport they claim to love.
Sugar is largely mute, isolated by language and location, both in Iowa and on the mound. Pressure from home plagues his performance, as does the arrival of ever younger, hungrier recruits. His silence, and the influx of viable talent, renders Sugar an everyman, easily substituted by players nurturing the same American dream. In fact, the bulk of the film's cast, including the winsome Algenis Perez Soto as Sugar, are amateur baseball players without acting experience. Their familiarity with this situation defines the film's authenticity. It also means Sugar could have been about them. But the crux of the story, and what makes it Sugar's own, is how involvement with organized baseball leads to self-discovery. Confronted by the reality of what was formerly obscure, Sugar adjusts his goals, distinguishing himself in the process.
Decompressing after a rare good day, Sugar graciously congratulates teammate Brad Johnson, a Stanford alum, on a great catch. Brad attributes the play to luck, but he means Seneca's version - the result of preparation meeting opportunity. Born in the States, Brad knows US culture and baseball's place in it, and has an education to fall back on. Sugar, however, hasn't considered alternatives, and itches from the growing sensation he might not like this job. In a magnificent long-take, the camera sits tight on the back of Sugar's head and shoulders, and follows him through a maze-like video arcade and entertainment complex. The flashing lights, electronic noise, and foreign chatter overwhelm him. He heads for the exit and, soon after, defects from Iowa, and baseball, for New York.
Sports moves typically depict personal triumph against all odds, but within the incompatible, self-denying perameters of rules, teams, external authority, and hostile competition. They champion the misfit who confuses finding themselves with finding a crowd to belong to. Arriving in New York, Sugar's met with familiar music and Spanish speakers of comparable backgrounds. He finds a job, a carpentry workshop, and friends who include him in local, amateur ball. In a lovely passage, players address the camera, stating their name, nationality, and former league team. Professional letdown is replaced by community and fun. Sugar's still one of many, but with a new, hard-won advantage - he can listen to his gut. Boden and Fleck appear to have honed this skill too. Half Nelson's critical success could have lead to opportunism. Instead, they gambled on subtitles and unknown actors and emerged with a better, more sophisticated film than their first. Sugar's personal achievement is uplifting. But it's cause for celebration when artists create just for the love of the game.