Part of an emerging pack of would-be American neo-realists, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden find themselves with one of the most intrinsically American emigration stories never told in their sophomore effort Sugar. From his home in San Pedro De Macoris to a competitive single-A baseball affiliate in Bridgetown, Iowa, Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), also known as Sugar, finds himself part of an all-too-poorly documented class of citizens picked out of small villages throughout the Dominican Republic -- not to mention Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Chile -- who are promised the American Dream in return for bolstering the American pastime.
Initially feeling more like a study in cultural assimilation in the style of compatriot Ramin Bahrani than their hard-nosed drug-drama debut Half Nelson, Sugar ends up being remarkably singular in its focus. In the Dominican ghettos, Sugar is considered a hero when he comes home from the baseball academy where he spends his weeks honing a rocket launcher of a pitching arm. When he is asked to the Bridgetown affiliate, nicknamed The Swing, his only connection to his home is an old friend (Rayniel Rufino) who was pulled out of San Pedro as well but who hasn't been called up thanks to a chronic ailment. Perez Soto, whose angular figure and penetrating gaze make him a hypnotic presence, appears in almost every frame. Article continues below
Arriving at The Swing, Sugar is given to white host parents (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull) who adorn him with praise, a curfew, religious indoctrination, and a sweet-natured granddaughter (Ellary Porterfield). Turned onto slang and TV on the Radio by a fellow player (a very good Andre Holland), Sugar starts feeling the temptations of fame and the alienation of the American mindset. In a superb tracking shot, Boden and Fleck follow Sugar from his room, through the winding corridors of his hotel, and into a local arcade and bowling alley. Everywhere he is alone, finding that his friends have already found there place in the new world.
Unlike other characters that seem lost in the imposing freedoms and fickleness of America, Sugar is the rare incarnation that evokes the adaptations many immigrants must make with understanding, balance, and nuance. When Sugar makes a hairpin decision, following an injury and a few bad practices, it is a choice that lands closer to pragmatism than romanticism or cynicism. The fact that Boden and Fleck take the time to show Sugar's immersion into a life after baseball reveals them as filmmakers closer to the bold poetics of Kelly Reichardt and So Yong Kim than many of their convention-based contemporaries. Even the inclusion of a Spanish-language version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" near the end doesn't feel all that contrived.
If Sugar seems like a step down from Boden and Fleck's debut, it is most likely due to the sheer ambition of the piece, if not for the fact that Half Nelson featured one of the great, physical performances of this decade by Ryan Gosling. More than almost any immigrant story in recent cinema, including Bahrani's insanely overrated Goodbye Solo, Sugar feels like it's in search of the yearning for even the smallest American dream, not only in the eyes of its subject but in the passing amber waves of grain, red-lit bars and clubs, and cacophonous cityscapes that make up America.