Sunday, October 5, 2008

EIFF: Sugar

This film breaks my heart. It isn’t the story that’s to blame, though the film is certainly moving at times. No, it’s the fact that this is one of those modest but inherently decent little films that seem to be shuffling through theatres on a path to some sort of oblivion—it will live on, but just barely, subsisting on scattered DVDs in a few video stores, doomed to be pawed for eternity by uncomprehending renters who pick it up only to put it down disdainfully after reading the back and not seeing any recognizable names. Like any other animals, these people know the scent of the sickly and weak and avoid it at all costs.

But that is hardly a just fate for this film. Sugar is by no means a great work, but it is a very good one, and its merits are rare enough that they should be seized upon by others. Unfortunately, the screening I went to was poorly attended, with only around 20 to 30 people in the crowd—a stark contrast to Half Nelson, the previous film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, which sold out its screening at EIFF two years ago. To be fair, Half Nelson had the benefit of a recognizable lead actor (Ryan Gosling) and a juicy premise (inner city high school teacher buys drugs from one of his students), while Sugar contains a cast of unknowns and tells the rather unglamorous story of a young man from the Dominican Republic drafted into the minor leagues.

This is certainly one of the most mundane sports films I’ve ever seen, and I mean that as a compliment. Miguel Santos (nicknamed Sugar for various reasons, which seem to change depending on what he’s doing at the time) never rises above the minor leagues. His American baseball career begins and ends with a Single-A team in Bridgetown, Iowa. Unsurprisingly, the film’s treatment of baseball is scaled to this level, meaning that there are no big make-or-break games, no bases-loaded, bottom-of-the-ninth moments of redemption.

In fact, this is not even a “baseball movie” in the normal sense. More than anything, this is the story of a young man coming to terms with what he wants from life, as well as a poignant recasting of the typical immigrant story. Sugar comes to America with ideas of baseball glory looming in his imagination. He brags of his great pitching abilities and even shows enough talent to become the toast of the team for a while, but once he is sidelined by an injury, his game never really recovers. However, there is a steady stream of other players from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere to take his place, and Sugar finds himself caught in the strange bind of having been brought to a country where he is no longer really wanted or needed.

Boden and Fleck tell this story simply, but eloquently. Their greatest virtue as filmmakers—and the reason I feel so saddened by this film’s presumable failure in the marketplace—is their ability to approach their characters in a way that is sympathetic and yet still critical. They are aware of the cruelty of this system that chews up talent, while being careful never to sneer at anyone who is caught up in it. Even as a coach is scolding Sugar for smashing a water cooler in a burst of rage, the filmmakers find ways to suggest more depth in this man, who other films would just dismiss as a stock character. The coach implies that he knows exactly what Sugar is going through, and as he speaks, his voice becomes more charged and emotional, his face becoming pained at a memory playing out as he speaks.

There’s another movie contained in that brief spark of emotion, one that follows the coach from his own youthful glory days to his decline, and reveals the quiet sadness of his job watching youngsters fall into the same traps that he did. The film does not always live up to the promise of such richly suggestive moments—some supporting characters, such as the small-town Christian girl Sugar develops a crush on, never quite rise above the level of sketches. But when the film does reveal the nuances of a character in a few lines of dialogue, you really feel the strength of Boden and Fleck as filmmakers.

This deep-rooted empathy prompted Half Nelson to its unsettling moral quandaries, but Sugar is comparatively more modest in reach, even if it still shows itself acutely aware of the political implications of its story. The film is certainly no polemic, but the tenderness of the drama suggests that the real purpose is to encourage an understanding of the difficulties facing a foreigner in a strange country. And even though the film mainly sticks to the intimacy and immediacy of Sugar’s problems, it still nods towards the larger scale of these issues when Sugar discovers an entire weekend league of discarded latino players, all of whom now only play for the love of the game as they struggle to carve out some place for themselves in American society.

After showing off his pitching prowess to his new friends, Sugar sits down on the bench amidst cheers and congratulations. A sorrowful look appears on his face, just for a moment, before a grin finally appears. Even as he celebrates what he has gained, he seems painfully aware of everything he has lost. It’s a quiet yet profoundly moving moment, and proof of the merit of Boden and Fleck’s approach, which displays great sympathy and humanity without ever descending into sanctimony and superficiality.

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