Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sugar: Another American Dream

Going to see Sugar was kind of a last minute decision. I didn't have time to read any reviews, no trailers, only the first 2 lines of the synopsis. So when the lights dimmed, I only knew it's a movie about a Dominican kid who comes to the states to play baseball and fight for the American dream. Even though I knew it was an indie film, I kind of hoping for a Hollywood ending. Anything else would just be terribly depressing. I was pleasantly surprised.

Rather than a sports movie, Sugar is more of a come-of-age movie. Miguel "Sugar" Santos left the Dominican Republic with no English, the best curve ball in his academy, and a head full of dreams. He stands at the brink of manhood-- 19 years old not old enough to drink, on one hand promising his girlfriend a Cadillac and Christmas at Yankee Stadium, on the other hand making tables and chairs by hand for his family and diligently sending money home. He never considered failing or an alternative future until he arrived at the rolling corn fields of Iowa to play in the minor leagues. There, not understanding the language or culture, he is isolated from his host family, coach, teammates, and even fans, with only 2, 3 other Latin American players who understands what he's saying. Miguel also witnesses the cut-throat baseball business, where people are removed often overnight when they don't look if they'll make it. When loneliness weigh down on him and his performance falter, Miguel begins to examine his life and goals. I found the ending much more realistic than the direction a Hollywood movie would have taken. It was kind of a downer-uplifting end, and after a day of thinking about it, it was very satisfying.

What I find most impressive is the portrayal of isolation in a foreign land. Often funny but heart felt, the struggle Miguel goes though is painfully realistic. Despite friendly welcomes from most Americans Miguel meets, it is still distressing when one can't answer a simple greeting or question. Writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (also responsible for Half Nelson) show that struggle on the most universal social level: ordering food, trying to talk to a girl, understanding one's coach, responding to a friendly greeting from a teammate. It doesn't matter if you're smart or funny when you can't find the vocabulary to express it. I feel the most poignant moment was after months of suffocating silence from Miguel with only a few words of response, the host family's granddaughter asks him how he received a cut on his head. Miguel tries his best to answer, but after 2 lines of broken English, gives up and says he doesn't know how to say it. She tells him it's ok, he can tell her in Spanish, and he does. There is no subtitle, and no sign that she understands him, but he is finally able speak normally, tell a simple story, and it feels like such a relief.

Sugar is not your typical feel-good movie, but when I left the theater, I was glad that it wasn't. It was more realistic, and because of that, it makes the peace Miguel finds in the end feel that much more genuine and hopeful.

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