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Viewing Journal: Sugar

As part of a new feature, I plan to begin posting a series of journal-like blogs based on my experiences with each of the three major art forms: film, music, literature. So you’ll see Viewing Journals, Reading Journals, and Listening Journals. They will be less review than thoughts and impressions. Sometimes they will be written immediately after the experience has taken place (as in, just after I’ve closed the back cover or finished a film) and other times they will be written after a bit more thought and consideration. My goal with these journal posts is twofold: to continue exploring how art acts as icon in our lives and to bring to light worthwhile, meaningful art.

Check back soon – many more of these will be showing up. For now, I begin my first Viewing Journal with some thoughts on the film Sugar.
*****
Like many great filmmakers, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck seem interested in telling stories about outsiders. In 2006, they brought us the wonderful Half Nelson, about a white, inner city teacher who finds himself enveloped in a complicated and desperate world in which he is not at home, despite his many efforts to become a part of it, to help improve it. He’s deeply troubled but also interested in making a meaningful difference in the lives of his students. Ultimately, he is able to make a difference when he is able to accept the dialectical (a key them in the film) differences between the culture in which he grew up and the one in which he lives and works. It’s a bit of cliche’, but what works in the ‘burbs ain’t always working in the inner city. He discovers that what unites people is a common understanding of the difficulties of the human condition.

Now, this is might sound like a simple story. And it is. But in the hands of Fleck and Boden Half Nelson also turns into a masterful film filled with lovely, fully developed characters, sharp dialogue, and a rugged, realist visual style.

The same can be said for Sugar.

Starring superb newcomer Algenis Perez Soto, Sugar is a gem of a film about a 19 year old Dominican baseball prodigy named Miguel “Sugar” Santos whose dreams of playing professionally in America are on the verge of coming true. A few years prior to the film’s opening Miguel signed with the Kansas City Royals for about $15,000, a relatively small sum compared to many of the other prospects. Since then he has developed a wicked curve ball and has become one of the top prospects in the organization.

But he dreams of more than baseball. He dreams of bringing his mother to America, of building her a house and providing her with all kinds of nice things. He dreams of living the American dream, of making it from the bottom to the top. We meet him in the ball fields of the Dominican and root for him as he attempts to one day play in Yankee Stadium.

Soon Miguel is in the U.S., in Iowa, wowing scouts and teammates alike. He’s well on his way. But he’s also in a strange land with a different way of speaking and new food. And he’s alone in a land of vast cornfields and farms, in a place where he’s stock, trade-able and sell-able just like any old cow or pig or goat. He’s got a magic arm, and people love him for it, but he’s acutely aware of the possibility that it could all crumble to the ground with one bad step from the mound or pop in his elbow. A bad slump and he could be gone just as quickly as he’d arrived. And virtually no one would know the difference.

As the film progresses, the pressures mount and Miguel begins to question whether he will ever make it to the big leagues. During one particularly moving moment, Miguel rides past Yankee stadium on a train and catches a glimpse through the famous center field wall. He sees the blue bleachers and the green grass, and the dirt. But it’s just a simple, fleeting glimpse, gone in seconds. We can’t help but wonder if that’s all he’ll ever see, just a glimpse of the success and fame and security of which he dreams.

Of course, this is not a new story. Every year hundreds of young men are brought to the United States to give baseball a shot. And for every miraculous success story – for every Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez – there is the kid whose career takes a turn for the worse and who never makes it. For every big-league home run champion there are hundreds of South American kids who blow out their knees; for every Cy Young winner there are hundred of kids whose elbows pop. For every multi-millionaire there are hundreds of kids who return home to slums and poverty, their glimpse at the fulfillment of their dreams sweet like sugar at first, but ultimately fleeting – and now gone. Too often things fail to go according to plan.

Fleck and Boden do their version of this tale remarkable justice. The film boasts remarkable, vibrant performances from the entire cast, and a vivid, realistic tone reminiscent of other recent sports productions, such as Friday Night Lights. But, like Friday Night Lights, Sugar is a story in which the sport is simply context. This film is not primarily about baseball (although the baseball scenes are remarkably true to life). It’s about people and places and dreams, it’s about Miguel and his teammates and the people who support him.

In fact, Sugar is a an immigration story more than a baseball story and as such is about the challenges inherent to living in an unfamiliar place: language barrier, new food, new life styles, new religious practices, etc. But this is not a political film. It doesn’t make any broad sweeping claims or statements. It simply focuses on a life that fails to go according to plan; it tells the story of a young man who is forced to decide how far he’s willing to let this dream take him, how much he wants it and how much he needs it.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of Jim Jarmusch’s amazing Stranger Than Paradise, a film similarly interested in the plight of the lonely outsider and about the possibility that the so-called “American Dream” is simply a lie, make-believe perhaps. Fleck and Boden are probably less cynical about it than Jarmusch is, but there is no doubt that they question the validity of the idea. Like Stranger Than Paradise, Sugar ends in a wonderfully bittersweet fashion, albeit properly and appropriately. There is no grad slam, no no-hitter, no miraculous heroics. Just a life lived, with hope and as well as possible.

Sometimes that’s all you can ask for. After all, hope is what enabled thousands – even millions – of immigrants to make new lives in America. Hope isn’t all you need, but it sure can get you started, sure can plant a seed, sure can build a foundation.

Sugar is a film about foundations, about getting started.

A few things:

– Loved the work by cinematographer Andrij Parekh, who also shot Half Nelson. Equally adept at shooting closed in or crowded locations as the open expanses of Iowa fields. Does some nice things with deep focus.

– Soto is remarkable in the film. Fantastic job by this complete newcomer. You’ll see him around again soon.

– One of the better in-action depictions of any sport I have ever seen. Yes, better than Rudy (*tongue planted firmly in cheek*).

– Speaking of which, no, this is not a Rudy story. This isn’t an inspirational, Lifetime Channel flick. This film is much more gritty than that, much more based in reality, much more…. gut-wrenching.

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