21 April 2009
Take Me Out to the Movies....
You needn't believe in the tee shirt that says, "Baseball is Life", to see that, Sugar, the new film from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, is not just about an aspiring ballplayer.
Indeed I'd go so far to say that calling Sugar a baseball movie is to trivialize it in the extreme.
Yes, there's a lot of baseball in the story of Miguel "Sugar" Santos a 20 year old Dominican pitching prospect playing for a Class A team in Iowa. But while the story begins and ends with action on the diamond, there's a lot more to it in between.
I'm guessing there will be a lot of people showing up at movie theaters looking for a Cinderella story with Santos winning the 7th game of the World Series in dramatic fashion. Sorry folks this film may not be for you.
And my goodness haven't we had enough sports movies with the same story arcs already? The improbable rise and thrilling ultimate victory of a rag tag team or individual underdog? It even crept into a movie about debating, last years, how-many-cliches-can-we-cram-into-one-movie, The Great Debaters.
And that's the wonderful thing about Sugar, there's not a single predictable moment in the film. All the more reason to know as few plot points as possible as you sit down to watch it.
Sugar is about lots of things before its about baseball. It's about the immigrant experience for one and the vagaries of learning a new language. It's about good simple, Christian folk in the corn belt and their conflicted granddaughter -- played by Ellary Porterfield, and this young actress is a revelation, I've read she's off to college now but I hope we see more of her talents on the big screen -- who wants to witness her religion but feels the yearnings of womanhood. It's about relationships among young men and you'll enjoy the scene where a group of young Dominican ballplayers out partying sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in broken, drunken English. So its about camaraderie. Its about choices. Those of us who've spent a few decades on the planet can attest to the fact that the decisions we make as young adults and even before impact the rest of our days -- be careful, kids. It's about dreams and how those dreams can change in the blink of an eye both because of external and internal factors.
Algenis Perez Soto in the title role delivers a wonderful performance, remarkable for its subtlety. Yes Santos loses control a few times, but only a few. This is a very self contained character and to reveal so much of him takes some powerful good acting. The rest of the cast is good too and they can thank a screenplay that does not have them play cardboard cutouts but real people. The elderly Iowa farmers who take Sugar in, his baseball manager and a Puerto Rican carpenter who befriends him are all fully drawn characters. How many actors and stories are bogged down by totally predictable characters? It's a rhetorical question but I'll answer it anyway: way too many.
Sugar reminds me of last year's excellent Thomas McCarthy film, The Visitor in that it has the courage to be different. Fleck and Boden most recently made Half Nelson a movie very dear to my heart as it explored both teaching and drug addiction, two things I know a little bit about. With independent filmmakers like Fleck and McCarthy around, audiences will continue to have alternatives to Fast Furious Spiderman Mutant Chronicles 3.