Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: 42 has us thinking about our national pastime.
Few genres are as rigidly formulaic as the contemporary sports film, a testosterone-heavy realm built around game-winning homers, last-inning strikeouts, buzzer-beaters, Hail Marys, and other melodramatic clichés endemic to the form. And it would be difficult to imagine a sports movie less interested in hitting the requisite beats or sticking to formula more than Sugar, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 2008 follow-up to Half Nelson.
The quiet, deliberately paced Sugar follows the uncertain path a talented young ballplayer from the Dominican Republic (Algenis Perez Soto) who gets a unique opportunity to pursue his dreams when he’s drafted by a major-league baseball team and sent to develop on an Iowa farm club. Sugar provides a fascinating glimpse into just how jarring, surreal, and strange Middle America must feel to an immigrant unaccustomed to its corn-fed ways. In an intriguing reversal, the American-born filmmakers render the ostensibly familiar world of life in Iowa jarring and new.
Sugar is less a conventional baseball story, or a typical sports saga, than it is a fascinating, refreshingly unsentimental exploration of the American immigrant experience as filtered through the crucible of professional baseball. The film didn’t attract anywhere near the attention that Half Nelson did, but that says less about the film’s quality than its low-key tone, modest scope, and unsexy subject matter (when it comes to tempting indie audiences, Sugar has nothing on Ryan Gosling as a crack-smoking teacher). With Sugar, Boden and Fleck set out to make a poignant and substantive character study about the intersection of race, class, nationality, and culture that just so happened to be about a talented pitcher. Sugar might be about what is chauvinistically considered the national pastime, but it endures because its themes and its scope are ultimately universal.
Availability: Not streaming anywhere currently, and not available for digital rental, but Sugar can be picked up on DVD, Blu-ray, and for digital purchase.