Is it possible for a film to not be clichéd enough? The most rudderless moments of Sugar, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s leisurely follow-up to Half Nelson, sometimes suggest so. The drama wanders so far from the conventions of sports flicks that it ultimately isn’t a baseball movie at all, but rather an empathetic, evocative exploration of the immigrant experience that just happens to be about the low-key travails of a minor-league baseball player. Instead of hitting all the usual beats, Sugar just moseys in a mostly delightful way.
In an impressive debut performance, Algenis Perez Soto plays an ace pitching prospect from the Dominican Republic who gets drafted by the majors and journeys to the exotic world of small-town Iowa to pitch for a fictional minor-league club. In his home country, Soto is a neighborhood superstar, a big fish in a small pond, but in the States, he struggles to find his footing and acclimate to Midwesterners’ strange customs. Soto gets off to a strong start, but when he falls into a slump, he drifts steadily away from baseball.
Fleck and Boden’s compelling character study conveys with understated humor and keen insight how bizarrely foreign the American experience must feel to outsiders. Sugar is characterized less by grand sweeping arcs than wonderfully realized little moments, like the way Soto orders the same thing from a greasy spoon as his teammates, because he can’t read the menu. Soto gives a heavily internal performance with little dialogue, letting his expressive eyes convey the complicated emotions of a young man trying to find his way in a competitive, confusing world. Sugar avoids the melodrama that sometimes marred Half Nelson, though it doesn’t build to a climax so much as amble to a close. Think of it as a subtle arthouse antidote to the groaning galaxy of baseball movies, a film more concerned with character, mood, and capturing a highly specific cultural milieu than with big games that invariably come down to the very last inning.