Monday, January 15, 2018
Sugar (2008 film)
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Sugar is the story of a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic who dreams of making it to the big leagues where he deals with the reality of chasing that dream when he arrives to America in the minor leagues. The film is an exploration of a young man who wants to give himself and his family a chance at a better life away from poverty while coping with the gift he has when he has to endure culture shock and the demands of the game. Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Andrew Holland, Rayniel Rufino, and Michael Gaston. Sugar is a rapturous and intoxicating film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
The film is a simple story of a young baseball pitcher who is given the chance to travel to America to play in the minor leagues as he hopes that he can make it and give his mother and siblings a good life back at the Dominican Republic. What happens instead is that he would face challenges upon arriving into a new environment where there’s so much to be expected not just from himself but also others who would come and go. The film’s screenplay by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck is largely a study of ambition and its fallacies as well as what it takes to make in the majors despite the fact the protagonist in Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) doesn’t speak much English and doesn’t know very much about American culture. The first act partially takes place in the Dominican Republic where Sugar is like every other player dreaming of making it to the Major Leagues like many before him where he is at an academy to learn about the game while learning to speak English. Upon learning that he and another player are going to Arizona for spring training with a minor-league rookie team, Sugar is excited as he hopes to do good things for his family.
Though he experiences culture shock and confusion during his time in Arizona, he was able to bond with players from the Dominican Republic along with players from other Spanish-speaking countries. When Sugar is sent to the A level in Iowa, the culture shock becomes greater where he would live with an old couple in the Higgins as he has trouble adjusting to his new environment while the only person he could really talk to is a Dominican player in Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) who has been in the minors for years as he helps Sugar out. While Sugar takes a liking towards the old couple’s granddaughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield), he does cope with some of the prejudice of being an outsider as it leads to this air of isolation that is prominent for much of the second and third act. Even as Sugar would endure an injury that would sideline him as he’s unable to get back on track prompting him to question a lot of things around him including himself.
The film’s direction of Boden and Fleck is definitely evocative in the way it captures not just this air of realism about the struggle in trying to make it to the major leagues but also in the study of isolation and culture shock. Shot largely in Iowa with additional locations shot in New York City, the state of Arizona, and the Dominican Republic, the film does play into idea of a man caught between two different worlds where one is a place that he’s familiar with as it’s his home and the other is just completely different. Boden and Fleck’s usage of the wide shots would capture the many cultural and social differences that Sugar would encounter as it adds to the sense of culture shock upon arriving somewhere like Iowa with its farmland, cornfields, and areas that doesn’t have much to offer like the small town he was in Arizona nor in the Dominican Republic. Yet, much of their direction involve intimate shots such as close-ups and medium shots to play into Sugar’s struggle with being on the pitcher’s mound and outside of the baseball field.
With Boden also serving as editor, she and Fleck would maintain something straightforward in the editing with a few jump-cuts such as a scene of Sugar meeting his many relatives wishing him luck that just adds to the pressure he’s in to succeed. Still, it just adds to this sense of isolation such as this amazing tracking shot sequence of Sugar walking out of his hotel room and into the bar, the arcade, and later the bowling alley as it shows him really lost he’s in. The third act is about this sense of continuation and awareness that Sugar has to endure when another player from the Dominican Republic emerges as someone who has the same gift that Sugar had. It’s a reality that is quite common where Boden and Fleck don’t sugarcoat it yet it would have an aftermath about what happen to those who don’t make it but still have a love for the game. Overall, Boden and Fleck craft a riveting and sobering film about a young man chasing his dream to become a major league baseball player only to deal with the realities and expectations of that dream.
Cinematographer Andrij Parekh does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography from the usage of natural lights for many of the daytime scenes as well as some lighting for some of the scenes at night including many of its interiors. Production designer Beth Mickle, with set decorator Richard Bailey and art director Michael Ahern, does fantastic work with the look of the baseball camps and places that Sugar goes to including the home of the Higgins family and the locker room for the team he plays for. Costume designer Erin Benach does nice work with the costumes as it is largely straightforward including the uniforms that Sugar wears during his time playing.
Sound editor Tom Efinger and sound designer Abigail Savage do excellent work with the sound in capturing the atmosphere of the baseball games as well as some of the places that Sugar and the people he’s with go to. The film’s music by Michael Brook is wonderful as it’s mainly low-key in its folk-based score while music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein creates a soundtrack that mixes all sorts of music from merengue, bachata, salsa, hip-hop, rock, and indie music from acts like Aventura, TV on the Radio, Cassie Ventura, Celia Cruz, Moby, Leonard Cohen, and Juan Luis Guerra with Ruben Blades and Robi Rosa.
The casting by Cindy Tolan is superb as it feature some notable small roles from Jose Rijo as a player named Alvarez, Kelvin Leonardo Garcia as the young pitcher Salvador who becomes a threat to Sugar’s spot in the third act, Alina Vargas as Sugar’s girlfriend in the Dominican Republic, Ann Whitney and Richard Bull as the old couple in the Higgins who would take Sugar in during his time in Iowa to make sure he does well, Ellary Porterfield as the Higgins’ granddaughter Anne whom Sugar takes a liking to, and Jaime Tirelli as a man named Osvaldo that Sugar meets late in the film. Michael Gaston is terrific as Sugar’s Iowa coach Stu Sutton who sees talent and potential in Sugar while is trying to understand where his control is once his performance suffers.
Andre Holland is fantastic as Brad Johnson as a player that Sugar befriends as he tries to help him with his performance and understand American culture. Rayniel Rufino is excellent as Jorge as a player from the Dominican Republic in Iowa who is the closest friend that Sugar has where he is someone that has seen a lot as he knows what will happen to him but would accept his fate. Finally, there’s Algenis Perez Soto in an incredible performance as the titular character as a young pitcher who has a gift for his pitching while hoping to succeed so he can get his family out of poverty but the demands of the game, the culture shock, and isolation would get to him as it’s an understated and mesmerizing performance from Soto.
Sugar is a phenomenal film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Featuring a great cast, gorgeous images, an intoxicating soundtrack, and themes of isolation and culture shock, the film is a unique study of ambition and its fallacies as it relates to the idea of the American Dream. In the end, Sugar is a sensational film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck Films: Half Nelson - It’s Kind of a Funny Story – Mississippi Grind – Captain Marvel - The Auteurs #71: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
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