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in Sundance
on Jan 24, 2008

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden return to Sundance with another intimate portrait, this time looking at baseball, particularly a Dominican player and how the game not only can change his life but his family’s as well if he plays to his potential.

Outside of documentaries, independent filmmakers rarely focus on sports, but you can tell Fleck and Boden are baseball fans, and being a baseball addict myself (three weeks till spring training!) it’s fun to see a sports film that isn’t sensationalized for widespread appeal. Their film Sugar shows the harsh reality of trying to get into professional sports and is the most realistic narrative film about baseball that I can ever remember seeing.

The film begins in the Dominican Republic at the Kansas City Knights’ facility (Films love to use Knights as a team name. The team Robert Redford‘s Roy Hobbs played for in The Natural was named the New York Knights.) where on the mound young right-hander Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) throws fire as he mows down batter after batter. Nicknamed Sugar for his love of the sweets and the ladies, he finds himself the envy of his small village and on the cusp of going to the States to show his talents to the big club. After a scout shows him how to throw a knuckle curve — a devastating off-speed pitch that adds to his fastball — he’s called up to spring training with the professional squad in Phoenix.

Though players of Dominican decent are the vast majority in today’s game, we see it’s still a huge adjustment for them to play for a big league team (though in the Dominican Sugar and the other players take English language classes to learn much-needed phrases like “I’ve got it,” “line drive,” “fly ball” and “home run”) and dealing with temptations they’ve never encountered before — like the hotel minibar.

Sugar wins over the Knights coaches and is put on the club’s Single A minor league team in Iowa. There in the farmland horizon where you’re lucky to find a Spanish station let alone someone speaking it, Sugar shows if he has what it takes to make it in the pros and give his family back home much-needed financial stability.

Boden and Fleck continue the style they used in Half Nelson and Gowanus — handheld, intimate camerawork and a limited score — to capture Sugar’s journey which is part fish-out-of-water, part rags-to-riches, but always intriguing and at times heart wrenching to watch, whether you’re a baseball fan or not.

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