Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos (Soto) is a pitcher at a baseball academy in his native Dominican Republic. During the week he lives, trains and plays with the team and on weekends goes home to his family who live in relative poverty, and where they see him as something of a hero. One day he receives the news he’s been waiting for when he’s told he’ll be going to the US for spring training, and the chance to play in a minor baseball league, and from there potentially major league.
In some ways, this is a typical sports film, following a well-worn path of rising star making the grade, achieving minor success before faltering and reaching a crossroads which will determine his future. But in many other ways, Sugar is unashamedly un-Hollywood. For a start, Sugar himself is not the cocksure hero we’re used to seeing and while he has confidence in his abilities as a pitcher, has no English to speak of (or indeed with) so once he gets to the US feels lost and vulnerable. Although superficially about baseball, this is really a film about immigration and growing up.
The story is very low-key – there are few extreme highs or lows in the first hour or so – the acting is naturalistic and it is often filmed with hand-held cameras and incorporates moody establishing shots aplenty which help to give the film a documentary feel. While this undoubtedly adds to the realism, it also detracts from the drama, which means Sugar can feel a bit sluggish at times. But the authentic characters, performances (especially from Soto who had never acted before this film) and plot are enough to maintain interest and there’s no doubt that directors Boden and Fleck capture Sugar’s isolation and loneliness in a subtle and affecting way.