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Sundance Film Festival/AP

Outside baseball

Movies | Sugar doesn't fall into sports clichés

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

The writing and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck has been making a name for itself creating New York stories. Half Nelson won an Oscar nod for Ryan Gosling's Harlem high-school teacher battling his students and a drug habit. The similarly themed Gowanus, Brooklyn initially created some buzz.

In light of their other work, a film about a Dominican baseball player trying to break into the major leagues may seem out of place, but Boden and Fleck bring the same intricate, heartfelt approach to the film, which eventually finds its home in New York as well.

Starring newcomer Algenis Perez Soto in the title role, Sugar follows the Dominican pitcher through baseball boot camp, Iowa pro ball, and eventually post-baseball life in Queens. Trained to dream of baseball as his ticket out of childhood poverty, Miguel "Sugar'" Santos arrives in America to find that his dreams stretch much further.

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A baseball player himself and first-time actor, Soto brings a startling realism to the role that extends through the film. The cast contains many Dominican non-actor athletes, and the directors navigate a film largely outside their native language and allow the story to guide them. Much of the action is shot in Spanish, and Sugar manages to steer clear of baseball film cliché. This is not the story of the long shot who makes it in the major leagues to become an idol to millions of little boys. It is the story of a man who, despite prodigious talent, decides to make a life for himself outside of the sport.

When Sugar leaves the pros and eventually starts playing baseball socially, the camera introduces actual men who were dealt the same fate. Watching all these men who migrated near Yankee stadium for the same reasons, it becomes clear how common this story is. The dedication of Sugar to relate the travails of this unknown man and the thousands of others like him makes the film special.

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