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Compared to Is Anybody There?, Sugar is something of a marvel—in the race between disease drama and sports flick, it’s rare that the latter offers a more nuanced viewing experience. But the second feature from Half Nelson writers-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck isn’t just Bull Durham with a Dominican kid as the hotshot rookie. And it needs no qualifiers to stand as a worthy watch on its own.
Sugar’s title character, birth name Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), is a 20-year-old pitcher who finally gets called up to a minor-league team in Iowa after being groomed in San Pedro. Back home, Sugar is a charming but cocky star with a killer smile for the ladies; in the States, he’s just one of many foreign- and natural-born talents, quickly deflated by the cutthroat competition and the language barrier. (His training back home did include English lessons, but with emphasis on game phrases such as “I got it!” as well as the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”)
Miguel learns to accept his diminished celebrity and works hard to prove his skills. (A wonderful, goosebump-inducing scene has him being pulled mid-game, but as Miguel walks off the field, his coach points out that the enthusiastic applause is for him.) But when a hometown friend is cut and Miguel himself suffers an injury, he finds himself questioning his career path.
Boden and Fleck lace Sugar with charms that fall short of quirky, such as the baseball-crazy senior couple who foster Miguel in Iowa (“No cerveza in la casa,” the man tells him during a litany of the house rules) or the drafted Dominicans ordering French toast in an American diner because that’s the only English breakfast term they know. Soto is a real ballplayer but an amateur actor, and although there won’t be any Oscar rumors swirling about his performance, he’s still more natural than many pros.
Where Sugar stumbles slightly is in the speed in which Miguel deflates. He goes back to the diner alone and orders eggs; when the waitress asks how he would like them, though, he’s silent and forlorn. Same thing with his social interactions, particularly with his host’s lovely granddaughter (Ellary Porterfield): While it would be unrealistic to have Miguel rattling off English with ease, he’s still drawn as an intelligent guy who you think would be more apt to learn some new, situation-appropriate vocabulary than just get depressed when anyone tries to communicate with him.
Miguel also has a rather drastic change of heart regarding the sport he grew up loving, and though it’s a bit hard to buy at first, the plot turn ultimately elevates the film into a story about expectations, the division of work and play, and the terrifying but terrific ability human beings have to change their minds. When the directors accompany a late-chapter, settling-into-his-groove sequence with a Spanish version of that ubiquitous soundtrack staple, “Hallelujah,” you might first think, ”Really?” But there’s a reason the song is so widely used, and in Sugar it’s a fitting reflection of Miguel’s arrival at grace.