Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have transformed some of the saggiest, most clichéd genres with smarts, non-screechy politics, superb acting, and visual beauty. Though, on paper, its premise could have easily elicited groans, Half Nelson—their 2006 feature debut (that Fleck directed and the two co-wrote) about a white middle-class Brooklyn basehead who teaches poor African-American junior-high kids about dialectics, forming a friendship with one of them—is free of all “each one, teach one” inanities found in hooey like Dangerous Minds. A sensitive treatment of race, class, history, privilege, and self-pity, Half Nelson is also one of the few intelligent films about friendship between an adult and a child.
Sugar, which premiered to great acclaim in Sundance 2008, tackles even hoarier terrain: the sports movie and the immigrant story. Though its release date falls two days before the start of Major League Baseball season, Sugar, while certainly diamond-specific, is less about America’s pastime than the fallacies of the American dream. It’s also a much more expansive, ambitious project—both geographically (Sugar was shot on location in the Dominican Republic, Phoenix, Iowa, and the Bronx) and linguistically (most of the film is in Spanish) than the Gowanus-set Half Nelson. The titular hero is 19-year-old Miguel “Sugar” Santos (played by the remarkable first-time, nonprofessional actor Algenis Perez Soto), a star pitcher for a farm team in Boca Chica, D.R., who impresses a gringo talent scout with his curveball and is invited to spring training in Phoenix, quickly advancing to a single-A team in Bridgetown, Iowa. Each disparate place is sharply observed but never judged. Without a trace of didacticism, Boden and Fleck portray the insidious details of exploitation and hollow American maxims. In the English classes that Sugar and his teammates must take at the training facility in Boca Chica, they parrot back not just “ground ball!” and “home run!” but also “I’ll do my best.” Sugar, who quit school at 16 to sign with the farm team, leaves behind the addition he’s building for his family’s house in dusty San Pedro to board a plane for the first time. The dutiful son sends most of his $562 checks back home to his garment-worker mother, somehow not enraged by the Stanford-grad teammate who was signed for one million dollars.
Bunking in Bridgetown with Mr. and Mrs. Higgins, an essentially benign elderly couple prone to haranguing their houseguest about his athletic performance, Sugar grows increasingly isolated by language and Corn Belt custom. “No chikkas in the bedroom,” “No cervesas in the casa,” his hosts lecture in their loony Midwestern Spanglish. Far from casting the Iowans as yokels, Fleck and Boden nonetheless capture certain believable heartland specifics: a racist scuffle in a club, misunderstood signals from the Higginses’ church-group-leading granddaughter, and, in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, a fluid, back-of-the-head long take as Sugar exits his hotel room and ambles through several different bumptious, neon-nightmare video arcades and bowling alleys. (Andrij Parekh, who lensed Half Nelson, continues his excellent work here.)
It’s no spoiler to say that Sugar doesn’t lead his team to victory, doesn’t make it big, doesn’t believe empty sports rhetoric like, “The true test of our character is how we come back,” and doesn’t assimilate. Struggling on the mound, increasingly aware that poor Latinos like him are used and discarded in the States’ minor-league system like stale chaw, he simply decides, “I wasn’t gonna wait for them to throw me out.” His field of dreams is found in the Bronx’s Roberto Clemente Ballfields, where love of the game is untainted by big business. Sugar starts over in New York, but his future is far from certain—a state of apprehension mixed with hope wonderfully conveyed by Soto’s shifting facial expressions in the final scene. Like Half Nelson, Sugar concludes with thoroughly earned yet cautious optimism. In their subversion of “inspirational” genres, Boden and Fleck don’t want us to be any less moved by the struggles and realizations of their protagonists. The filmmakers simply insist that we are fully aware of a character’s internal and external obstacles—that tidy redemptions have no place in a complicated world.