Monday, April 20, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

There are no guns or glitzy plot twists in Sugar. The second feature by husband-wife writer/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson), who fly their indie freak flag high, this is the story of a charismatic young man who uses baseball as his way out of poverty in the Dominican Republic.

It’s a great idea for a movie – in fact, much the same story was masterfully told in The New Americans, a multi-part documentary that aired on PBS in 2004 and is now available through Netflix. But by observing their main character instead of getting inside his head, the filmmakers made me feel almost as uninvolved in his storyas in Cal's.

When we first meet Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), he’s at a U.S. baseball camp in the Dominican Republic, drilling hard every day in hopes of becoming a pro. Then he gets his big break, a chance to play in the States. “Life gives you many opportunities. Baseball, only one,” his mentor tells him. That may be the theme of this meandering movie, which follows Sugar into the minor leagues and beyond.

Soto, who went to baseball camp in the DR before giving up on becoming a ballplayer, has charisma to burn, and Sugar is an upstanding young man, so Fleck and Boden have our sympathy from the start. But they don’t do much to build on that goodwill.

The story is badly paced, spending too much time on the details of a baseball career that turns out to be just a stepping stone. It also telegraphs some important plot points, so Sugar’s decline as a ballplayer seems anticlimactic even while it’s happening. But it’s the distance the filmmakers maintain between us and Sugar that lost me.

Too many of Sugar’s actions and thoughts are opaque, and Soto plays too many scenes with the same hangdog sadness. It didn’t help that a shower scene and some shots of Soto shirtless felt gratuitous, objectifying the actor.

That distance reminded me of Half Nelson, an unconvincing story about a teenager in an urban high school who befriends her teacher, helping him kick an addiction to drugs. Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling were each mesmerizing on their own, but I never bought the relationship between their characters or felt like I knew what made either one tick.

I don’t doubt that Fleck and Boden mean well, and they choose interesting stories to tell. I just wish they knew their characters a little better.

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