The great American dream is to succeed in all endeavors, to draw upon past experience and natural talent and harness that with hard work and reap the benefits for you and yours, to benefit the next generation. The great American myth is that success is inevitable, as it is only a matter of effort. The reality occurs when our faculties, for whatever reason, fail us. For a baseball player from the Dominican Republic, showing great talent from a young age when it comes to pitching, Yankee Stadium is but a distance away, and one need only go. But what happens when talent fails that player? They must work harder – but what if work is not enough to overcome extraordinary competition? Then one must focus. And if that is not enough? Eventually, stiff enough opposition wears down even the most resilient worker. Though the average Studs Terkel fan would recoil at the idea, everyone has a limit to their abilities, and there is a time to recognize that limitation. In the spirit of the new American cinema championed by Ramin Bahrani, in which the fantastic is discarded in favor of the familiar in stories about how we live our lives, the new film Sugar breaks new ground by walking the path we all have walked at some point.
Algenis Soto plays ‘Sugar’ Santos, a big man in his home village in the DR, where batter after batter fall victim to his mighty pitching arm. Beginning in a swagger and becoming more internal with time, Soto gives a command performance as he progresses through the ranks of minor league baseball. Selected by scouts to participate in spring training, he is given a chance to show his hot shit in the United States. His entire family has big plans for him, and are expecting him to go all the way; his girlfriend who is drunk with the idea of hitching a ride on a star, his sister who is hoping to avoid a life of sweatshop drudgery, and his mom most of all for expecting her son to do her proud, and of course make the most of God’s gifts. Religion surrounds him in the DR, and appears to give a profound push to his energy as he continues to the also mindlessly Christian rural Iowa. These early scenes appear simple enough, pulsing with the rhythms of small town life, alternating between driven work in baseball practice and relaxed moments with friends by the ocean. The groundwork is laid for a tightly focused character study, so flawlessly executed that you will recognize him in the mirror.
As Sugar unloads his stuff in spring training, he goes from repetitive strikeouts to manufacturing ground balls in the infield, and the occasional hit from a true talent on the rise in the minors. Still, he is seen as promising, and must stay on his game. As his DR coach warns his squad: “You may be thinking of your family, your sister, your friends, your girls… forget them all.” And this advice comes to bear in AA ball, when those strikeouts become hits, and then towering home runs. He must focus, and bring every particle of concentration upon that strike zone, for these are the moments that will determine his life. And if that talent, that relentless work, and that inner fortitude is not enough, what then? This is where most sports films would betray the inhuman effort required to achieve athletic stardom and just pretend the protagonist will overcome. And this is where Sugar leaves those films choked and ragged in the dust. The sports film with underdog redemption that was initially threatened disappears entirely as it becomes about the man, and what is left when his powers end and his confidence is betrayed.
Life is far more about failure than triumph at those critical junctures, and luck is not always on the hero’s side. A person’s character is determined by what they do in the aftermath, using whatever abilities they have left when ambitions are left in tatters. And in the remains of the day, there are the small moments, and this film is rich with them. The alien quality of America when Sugar first arrives, ordering whatever his friends do off a menu since he cannot speak English, attempting to blend with the white folks and mack on the pretty white girls, using spare time to fashion a table out of wood with the greatest of care. Though it would be trite to say that it is the simple pleasures that make life worth living, there is not much else we do with our time save a grueling work schedule with most of our daylight hours. The magnificence of this film, which falls neatly within a neo-neo-realist category, is in expressing this with clarity in a harsh world of grind with a deficit of sentiment. The most determined among us shoot for the stars, and if that trajectory falls short of the mark, then that something else we find becomes our world.
The unobtrusive direction of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) allows the eyes to express what the screenplay wisely leaves unsaid. The cast is uniform in this ethic, especially Soto, whose eyes burn with intensity, panic, and sanguine acceptance. The camera catches a wealth of detail in seemingly disposable moments that provide a great deal of depth, giving the film a lived-in quality. Interestingly, religion is everywhere initially, in word and prayer, in church and bible meetings, until it suddenly drops off the planet when the story takes a left turn – make of that what you will, but it is a sly touch that will bring one of many smiles to your face if you enjoy films that take place on planet Earth. And that is what is most enjoyable about this intimate film, despite its wobbly arc lacking in third act ascendancy: it is familiar because we have all experienced that time in our lives when we realize that we have hit that wall with great finality. In that light, the standard sports film with the climactic game victory rings especially hollow, as it should.
And so the new American Dream becomes that of recognizing failure – and moving on with all speed. The most telling shot of the film is a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but one to watch for carefully: Sugar is taking the train up to the Bronx, and between two buildings, you see the vast expanse that is Yankee Stadium, and then it passes forever. Not that it matters – the train keeps moving, as does the world.