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Inside Baseball:
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Sony Pictures Classics)


Monday, April 06, 2009

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Arriving on the cusp of opening day and just in time to put the finishing touch on an exceptionally ominous off-season for American baseball (more steroid bombshells, another U.S. World Baseball Classic loss, Johan Santana’s arm problems), Sugar announces itself as Not Another National Pastime Movie by purporting to bring a social realist sting to a sports genre prone to the excesses of self-congratulatory lyricism. The topic: Latin American dominance in American professional ball, which has been undeniable for so long now that it was only a matter of time before a conscientious filmmaker (or two, in this case) set out to encapsulate the trend in the cinematic equivalent of an investigative Sports Illustrated two-parter. Sugar fulfills the role with shrugging, uninspiring mediocrity on fronts informative and visual.

Structured along the lines of a sober, dependently researched John Sayles muckraker, writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck trace the factory-like production of 19-year-old righty phenom Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto). Sugar begins his ascent to the Show in a winter baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, home to his impoverished, fatherless family for whom he hopes to provide a better life. Miguel is selected for a tryout at spring training in America and does well enough to win a spot on the Single-A Quad City Swing in Bridgetown, Iowa. Taken under the wing of struggling third baseman and fellow Dominican Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) and provided board by elderly Swing fanatics the Higgens (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull), Miguel grapples to find his place in the States and eventually loses command of his on-field prowess. Stations of the athletic cross follow: an insurmountable language barrier with most of his teammates and off-diamond acquaintances; separation from Jorge due to the merciless perform-or-die competition of professional ball; run-ins with envious locals on the dance floor where Miguel and teammates flirt with white girls; an unconsummated romance (despite a girlfriend back home) with the Higgens’ Christian Youth teenage granddaughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield); a leg injury; increasingly frustrating setbacks on the mound; steroid use; behavioral problems.

Because Sugar explores a process more than it does a character, what unintentionally emerges is a composite portrait that contrives a life for its protagonist to make its points. Boden and Fleck’s previous feature, it should be mentioned, was Half Nelson, an unintentionally self-incriminating example of pious liberal hand-wringing, and Sugar similarly betrays a politically correct, bullet-pointed understanding of social and cultural complexities. It’s not enough, for instance, for Miguel to feel adrift in the Higgens’ thoroughly Midwestern, protestant home (though affably parental, the comic relief of the elderly couple’s naïve butchering of Spanish doesn’t seem to accord with their long history of providing bed and board for a constant influx of Latin American players) — they must also have a grandson on duty in Iraq. Social activism gets likewise shoehorned into the script: when Miguel learns about the altruistic Pirate legend Roberto Clemente, it bluntly coincides with his return to baseball For the Love of the Game in the film’s unconvincing final act, where former Latino pro ball castaways form their own neighborhood league.

Sugar’s direction likewise evinces a shaky utilitarianism that crosses over into the embarrassing whenever Boden and Fleck try anything adventurous. Timid, erratic zooms and tracking shots forcing us “into” the action fail to excite and needlessly distract, though the occasional whip pan following a ball around the horn works quite nicely, much like the attention paid to details of the minor-league stadium environment and small-town life. But much worse is a Van Sant-cribbed (and thus Tarr-cribbed, and so on down the line) tracking shot following Miguel at his back through a sports and video arcade. The ambient noise ratchets up a notch on the soundtrack, ostensibly intensifying Miguel’s stranger-in-a-strange land alienation in the country of fast food and blaring cock rock. Without offering a new twist on this visual chestnut (which recently came in at #19 on Reverseblog’s “Twenty Shots To Be Henceforth Retired From Film Vocabulary”) the shot feels forced, an off-putting cliché barely tempered by the slightly less ostentatious and therefore more fitting use of shallow focus during Miguel’s eventual performance decline.

Just as Boden and Fleck don’t quite earn these jarring, anti-intuitive stylistic flourishes (this isn’t even to mention the ludicrous montage of Miguel starting a beatific life as a carpenter in the Bronx as set to a Spanish-language version of “Hallelujah,” another egregious platitude infraction), they also don’t quite sell the notion of Miguel going M.I.A. from the team on a solitary journey to find himself in New York. Sugar imparts the painful realization of a talented athlete’s relegation to the ordinary once he’s graduated to a bigger stage beyond the neighborhood alleys in his Dominican hometown, where as a local superstar he shows off his academy-tutored spiked curve. But the more likely, and less pat, scenario for exploring the grinding professional baseball circuit would be for Sugar to continue to feel pressure to support his family — his mother and his sister work in a sweatshop — and keep persisting through his own mediocrity until his arm falls off or he settles into life as a permanent Single or Double-Aer.

Boden and Fleck’s solution of independence for Miguel may be possible in the real world, but it also smacks of a simple, idealized answer (the issue of the pitcher’s lack of funds or connections in New York is cleared up in the space of five minutes) to the much more difficult questions the film raises about immigration — of which Miguel is made a very obvious symbol — and the possibly exploitative, disposable, and corrupt conditions of baseball’s farm systems. (Props to critic Mark Asch for pointing out the irony of 1990 World Series MVP Jose Rijo’s cameo as an academy head. Less than two months ago, Rijo was fired from his position as special assistant to Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden for lying about a prospect’s name and age). In this regard Sugar brings life to the absurdities that comprise such a specialized, venerated and insulated occupation as Miguel’s — classes teaching English for phrases like “I got it,” ordering nothing but French toast at greasy spoons, worries about life beyond baseball with only one completed year of high school under his belt. Yet it neglects to provide a substantive framework in which they can exist as moments in the career of an individual, and not that of an instructive, almost corrective case study.





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