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REVIEW: Sugar

By Philip Martin

This article was published June 12, 2009 at 2:09 a.m.

a-stunning-curve-ball-is-the-key-to-success-for-19-year-old-dominican-pitcher-miguel-sugar-santos-in-sugar

A stunning curve ball is the key to success for 19-year-old Dominican pitcher Miguel "Sugar" Santos in Sugar.

— One of the myths of sport is that talent is scarce. Genius is scarce, but talent is abundant. There are lots of athletes out there with the gifts to make good money if they only get the opportunity and a few breaks.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in minor league baseball, where virtually every player has the potential for a major league career. Someone must sit at the end of the bench and wait, to pitch in middle relief or spell the regular second baseman.

But not everyone has a fair shot at these jobs; major league clubs have a vested interest in promoting those players they've signed to million-dollar bonuses over poor kids from the barrio like 19-year-old Miguel "Sugar" Santos (newcomer Algenis Perez Soto), the product of a "baseball academy" sponsored by a major league club in the Dominican Republic. These academies churn out hundreds of cheaply signed players who,for the most part, serve to stock the team's minor league farm system.

When Sugar learns a knuckle curve to go with his above-average curve, he's off to the United States, first for spring training in Arizona with the Kansas City Knights (the altered name is a tip-off that Major League Baseball didn't fully cooperate with the filmmakers; the Kansas City Royals were the team that pioneered the baseball academy approach in the 1970s) and then on to an A ball assignment in Bridgeport, Iowa.

There Sugar finds himself staying with a sweet old farm couple (gracefully played by Chicago-based actors Richard Bull and Ann Whitney) who love baseball and the young, mostly Latin players who boardwith them each summer. Sugar is touched by their generosity and smitten by with their granddaughter (Ellary Porterfield), who comes to symbolize the fresh-scrubbed American dream.

But after starting well, Sugar's game begins to slip and doubts seep in, spinning the movie into an unconventional but honest direction. To say more would be a disservice to this tender but unfl inching fi lm, which echoes last year's remarkable The Visitor. In a way, Sugar may be as much about the making of an American as it is about the exploitation of Dominican resources (for more on the sociological and economic impact of baseball on the D.R., see Alan M. Klein's outstanding 1993 book Sugarball).

Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the team behind 2006's Half-Nelson) play close attention to the baseball details (none of the players throw like actors), but the visually enthralling Sugar is not your typical sports movie. It's an immigrant's song, a story about cultural dislocations and human connections that happens to be one of the year's best movies.

MovieStyle, Pages 40 on 06/12/2009

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