Check Sugar’s closing rack focus, from a ballplayer to a dugout’s chain-link fence: this isn’t a baseball movie, it’s an immigration movie. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden use baseball’s feeder system of Dominican academies and minor leagues to dramatize the movement of aspirants into the American workforce’s crushing entry level.
“Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) practices his knuckle curve and learns “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in English classes at the D.R. campus of the fictional Kansas City Knights, before migrating, amid high hopes and financial responsibility, to Class A ball in Iowa. Fleck and Boden get the farm system’s textures: team-bus cliques and a lazy summer weeknight’s homegrown national anthem singer. (Plus the no-name and nonpro cast is fundamentally sound — thank neorealism for Sugar’s sports movie credibility.)
Fleck and Boden’s research, though, seems to serve their conclusions. Their camera isolates Sugar from his surroundings — Directing 101 with a subject-appropriate difference, following the pitcher as he hustles to back up throws (while the crowd keeps its eye on the ball). Less subtle is Sugar’s culture-clash with his corn-blonde Christian host family, and general lost-in-translation helplessness, often played for comedy; hammering at America’s insensitivity towards its visa-holders, Fleck and Boden strain credibility by implying that (apparently all-white) MLB organizations are indifferent to their Latino prospects’ acculturation.
Sugar’s press notes tout the logistical support and counsel of Dominican idol, Reds ace and academy head Jose Rijo (who cameos as a cigar-clamping mentor). Between Sugar’s 2008 Sundance debut and this spring’s Opening Day, Rijo resigned from the Washington Nationals front office and academy, under investigation in a bonus-skimming scandal. Which suggests that Sugar’s on to something about exploitation, while missing how integrated the hierarchy actually is.