Release Date: April 3
Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Writers: Anna Bodden and Ryan Fleck
Cinematographer: Andrij Parekh
Starring: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Ann Whitney
Studio Information: Sony Pictures Classics, 120 mins.
Sugar, the second film by the young writer-director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, follows a promising baseball pitcher named Miguel—nicknamed Sugar—from his home in the Dominican Republic through a series of minor league teams in the U.S. This isn’t The Natural, but rather a naturalistic view of the underside of professional baseball, where young men are chasing the American dream in its most iconic form, facing culture shock and loneliness in the process. I don’t remember seeing this aspect of the game on the big screen before, and the peek behind the curtain is fascinating, but Sugar is, more than anything else, a character study of a particular young man, not an indictment of the system. And as you might expect from the writers and directors of Half Nelson, the film pays far more attention to the details of Miguel’s life than it does a dramatic arc.
Half Nelson was an unusually nuanced character study, an audacious inversion of a Hollywood chestnut (the inspirational high school teacher), and a political allegory, all in one. Sugar lacks that complexity in part because the character at its center has a very different way of interacting with the world than Ryan Gosling’s character in Half Nelson. The Brooklyn school teacher was a verbal, conflicted, and defeated political animal, but Miguel is an innocent who barely speaks English and is wholly unprepared for the nest of confusion that he’s about foment in his heart.
Sugar is a simpler film than Half Nelson, but in many ways it resembles the highly respected first feature by Ousmane Sembène, Black Girl (La noire de, 1966), about a young woman who moves from Senegal to the south of France and feels domesticated by a white upper class. Fittingly, the political barbs are softer in Sugar, as I suspect they are in Miguel’s own thoughts.
Some of the surprise of seeing a major new talent appear from thin air is lost in even a strong sophomore effort, but it’s no criticism to say that Boden and Fleck have quickly established themselves as an emerging force in American film and have set and met a high standard for their work. It’s well on its way to becoming a cliché, but their use of Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is particularly stirring late in the film. And whether the conclusion is a frustrating side step or a personal triumph depends on whether you’ve taken the film’s many opportunities to understand Miguel. I found it sublime.