There's a moment about 80 minutes into Sugar when something miraculous happens. I wouldn't dream of giving it away, but suffice it to say, the story has been moving in a fairly predictable direction (albeit in a subtle and interesting way), and then, in a manner that is unexpected but not a cheat, it takes a sudden, hard turn. I literally sat up in my chair, and leaned forward. That's a great moment as a moviegoer--most of the time, even at good pictures, you're watching a movie you've already seen. When this film takes its third act turn, we smile and get excited, because it has just become a movie we've never seen before.
Sugar is written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who helmed the miraculous 2006 film Half Nelson (frankly, their names alone were enough to pique my interest in this film, and I had the too-infrequent experience of watching it without knowing anything about it). Sugar shares that film's low-key, lived-in feel, as well as its ability to rethink and work out from what sounds, in both cases, like a terrible, formulaic storyline.
Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) hails from the Dominican Republic, where major league baseball teams run training camps, hoping to find the next Sammy Sosa. Sugar is a pitcher, and his knuckle curve captures the eye of a visiting scout for Kansas City, who sends him to the States for spring training. From there, he is assigned to the franchise's single-A team in Iowa; he lives with a couple of team boosters, develops a crush on their granddaughter, and becomes something of a local celebrity, until... well, I'll just leave it at that.
The story of the young, talented innocent and his rise to fame and fortune has been told so many times (both within and outside of the world of pro sports) that it is easy to presume that Boden and Fleck were going for a more commercial narrative this time out, based at least on the broad strokes of the story. It follows a very traditional three-act structure, with the first act focused on his home life, home town, and home base at the training camp, and the second concentrating on his time in Iowa. The general recipe for these sections is familiar, though made more interesting by the additional ingredient of Sugar's immigrant experience, as well as Boden and Fleck's lean, efficient sense of storytelling.
Even in its more conventional segments, their screenplay never plays it too easy; there's no obvious exposition, no amped-up conflict. The picture isn't rushed or pushy--it rolling along with grace and ease, and when it comes to a pat sequence (like Sugar's first big game), it underplays the tension with no-nonsense, hard-cut editing. The rising-star montage is, presumably, a necessity in this kind of story, but when they indulge in one, it's scored with TV on the Radio and kept tight with a restless camera and some unconventional framing. Throughout the film, they're skilled at compressing action, jumping into a scene as late as possible and leaving at the first available moment, and they can tell a full story in a brief, compact sequence or even a single shot (as when we find out what's become of his girl back home).
But it's only when we reach that remarkable third act that we realize how ingeniously the script has been constructed, how shrewdly the duo has turned our expectations of a sports-driven yarn inside out. This is not a film that traffics in rags-to-riches clichés, and its logical and moving yet entirely unpredictable third act is just plain riveting. It's a film that sneaks up on you, working up considerable affection and empathy for its protagonist without straining for it, right up through its warmly melancholy final notes (which are held ruefully for just the right amount of time, and not a moment longer).
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Worth noting: word is that Sugar has been re-cut from its original R rating to a PG-13 version for its standard-def release. While these alterations are certainly minimal (a few isolated profanities and a quick shot of a porn movie playing on a hotel television), the PG-13 version does not represent the film as it was released to theaters; its creation is apparently an attempt to open the film up to a family audience. At any rate, the good news is that the Blu-ray disc presents the film in its original, unaltered form.
Sugar sports a rich, warm 1.78:1 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded image, detailed and layered. The abundant outdoor scenes are a knockout, both on the baseball diamond and off of it; in one scene, the lush, vivid greens of Iowa make for a stark contrast with the dark, grainy browns of the Dominican Republic as Sugar places a phone call to his family. Other scenes present greater challenges, and most come out looking splendid, particularly a tricky arcade/bowling alley scene which takes in the darkness and neon with equal aplomb. Details are tremendous, particularly the heavy sweat on his face and arms in the several tight close-ups during a bad stretch on the mound. Grain is appropriate throughout, although it gets a little heavy during a back porch scene with romantic overtones. There is also some occasional softness, though it mostly seems to be the result of cinematographer Andrij Perekh's playful focus.
Though a good chunk of the film is in English, the majority is in subtitled Spanish, so the disc's default playback option is the Spanish Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, with the "no subtitles" selection--though that's actually the version with the Spanish dialogue subtitled in English. (Confusing, right?) As a general rule, the mix is full and thick, and dialogue (even heavily-accented English) crisp and clear. The track is fairly front-heavy, however; there's some rear activity during the game scenes, but not as much as you might hope for. The LFE channel is mostly subdued as well, though it comes to loud and full life during a loud club scene.
A Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 option is also available, as are full-on English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
The disc's bonus content is mostly good; it's a shame there's so little of it. First up is the featurette "Making Sugar: Run the Bases" (14:33), which makes ingenious use of split-screen to intercut film clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with the filmmakers and star Algenis Perez Soto. "Play Béisbol! The Dominican Dream" (12:56) takes a closer look at the film's representation of the common experience shared by Latin American baseball hopefuls, including interviews with athletes such as Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, and Daniel Cabrera. Soto's screen test is shown in "Casting Sugar: Interview with Algenis Perez Soto" (4:26). Next up are five Deleted Scenes; most are non-dialogue character moments and nice supplements, and one gives a bit of follow-up to a flirtation seen briefly in the final cut. Additional Previews round out the package, along with the fairly shallow Trailer (2:06), which gives little hint of the film's off-beat style.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled, though no additional features were yet available at the time of this review.
"Remember," Sugar is told, "life gives you lots of opportunities. Baseball only gives you one." What is most remarkable about Sugar is that it is a film about life, not baseball--there is no "big game" and no "moment of truth", none of the hackneyed sequences that we've come to dread from sports stories. It's a film about the myriad of opportunities, not just the one.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.