Sugar (HBO Films/Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film_sugar_sm.jpgAnna Boden and Ryan Fleck are still very good at getting the performances that they want.




Half Nelson came pretty much out of nowhere. Although I liked Ryan Gosling a lot already at the time that I saw it (and I saw it at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered), I had no reason to believe that a crappy-sounding story about an inspirational, heroin-addicted teacher befriending one of his young students who knows about his secret vice would turn out half as good as it did. The two writer/directors, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, really pulled off making what sounded like an impossibly schmaltzy story into a believable, compelling and human one.

Boden and Fleck have now followed up Half Nelson with their second feature film, Sugar, and it faces some hurdles with me, too, mainly because it is a sports movie (minor league baseball, to be specific), and I don’t like sports, and rarely like sports movies. Still, after Half Nelson, I had enough good will for Boden and Fleck that not only was I willing to see Sugar, I was excited.

Sugar concerns Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a star pitcher in his home of the Dominican Republic, who is called up to play in the minor leagues here in America; he gets transported away from his family and friends to play baseball with a bunch of white guys in Iowa whose language he can barely speak. He’s put up with an older couple on a farm who are nice and supportive, but who also take baseball very seriously and who take it upon themselves to tell Sugar when they think he’s doing something wrong in his game. After some initial jitters, Sugar settles into pitching for the minors, and once again becomes the star pitcher, only to discover that he is no longer sure that baseball is what he wants.

Boden and Fleck are still very good at getting the performances that they want—Sugar‘s cast is made up almost entirely of unknowns (this is Soto’s first film, even)—but you’d never know it from watching the film, as everyone is thoroughly convincing in what are often very complicated roles. Aside from their direction of actors, though, I can’t help but feel that Sugar is a bit of a misstep for Boden and Fleck; it is by no means bad, but it lacks the power that Half Nelson so surprisingly held. It is a matter of the fact that they had more to work with here; aside from my apathy toward sports, Sugar‘s narrative arc doesn’t put me off instinctively as Half Nelson‘s did—so how come I find myself considerably less involved in it? | Pete Timmermann

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