Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sugar Is A Departure From Typical Sports Movies And Is All The Better For It

A whole decade before they directed box office juggernaut Captain Marvel, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck helmed the sports drama Sugar, which takes a premise that could easily be fodder for a run-of-the-mill inspirational sports movie and takes it in a whole other direction. The Sugar of the title refers to a nickname given to Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a baseball player residing in the Dominican Republic who, along with every other local baseball player, dreams of getting recruited for rookie training in the United States of America. That's not a turn of events that befall just anyone, but Miguel manages to score such a rare opportunity to train with the Kansas City Knights in Iowa.

Leaving his home and family behind, Miguel travels to a country he's unfamiliar with to pursue his dream, a scenario that's easy to see being the baseline for a traditional inspirational sports movie about Sugar overcoming all the odds to achieve all of his dreams. But this is where Sugar goes in such a refreshing direction as Miguel's time training and then on the Kansas City Knights team is rife with difficulties. Miguel quickly realizes that he's the most expendable of the team members and begins to fret about what he'll do if he doesn't manage to earn his place on the team. All the other players have some form of education or another career field to turn to as a backup plan but baseball is all Miguel has, there is no alternative to this.

Sugar then becomes a harrowing look at how Miguel's tenuous status on this team sizeably impacts his behavior. Though there's tragically little done in the way of actually preventing it, but the way modern-day sports can dehumanize its players is certainly well-profiled in pieces of journalism examining how college football teams treat its players as well as how the NFL ignores scientific research related to the correlation between football-related concussions and long-term mental health problems. That's rarely seen in the movies though, which typically opt for a more upbeat look at underdogs overcoming the odds to achieve their sports-related dreams.

There's nothing at all wrong with a well-made piece of inspirational sports cinema but Sugar is a great showcase for what kind of quality cinematic storytelling can be told when examining the darker side of being an athlete, particularly when you're an athlete from a foreign country playing for an American team that sees you as more expendable than anything else. While Miguel might not feel like he's being treated like a human being in his experiences on the Kansas City Knights, the movie certainly values this character as a fully rounded person as seen by opening sequences that flesh out Miguel's personal life at home where he can be defined as a person beyond just how many strikes he threw today.

These early scenes do their job nicely of getting one to become invested in Miguel and it's a wonderful touch that Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's writing makes sure to keep emphasizing Miguel as a person even when he comes to America and has his identity-related turmoils. Miguel has romantic flirtations, personal interests and friendships developed outside of just the anguish he experiences in his baseball career. Miguel's personal conflict tied into how his life hangs in the balance of his performance as a baseball player is certainly developed enough to make it appropriately harrowing but part of why it's so effectively imposing is that it's not the only part of Miguel's life we get to explore. Seeing Miguel as just a person helps us become invested in him and makes the struggles he goes through all the more powerful to watch.

The script for this movie is just a richly detailed creation that's just as skilled at making its lead character a compelling individual as it is at subverting typical inspirational sports movie narrative beats in favor of having Miguel go through more realistic life experiences. Such experiences are made extra affecting in execution by the lead performance from Algenis Perez Soto. Despite having no acting experience prior to being in Sugar, Soto delivers exemplary work portraying all the complex emotions Miguel experiences in realizing how chasing his baseball stardom dreams is rife with more peril than he ever imagined. Soto's final bit of acting in the movie is especially impressive as he eschews dialogue entirely to just communicate Miguel reflecting on all the complex emotions he feels over everything that he's experienced. It's a quiet but powerful moment that closes out the exceptional sports movie Sugar on the acting equivalent of a home run.

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