May 8, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long: Review

'Sugar' has just enough sweetness

Algenis Perez Soto stars as Miguel in "Sugar," the tale of a Dominican baseball player who is trying to make the big leagues. (Sony Pictures Classics)

A wise look at the American Dream and the danger of great expectations, told from just enough of an outsider's perspective to keep things novel, "Sugar" is a low-key curveball of a film, a baseball movie that doesn't want to knock anything out of the park. Instead, it wonders why the park is there at all.

Sugar is the nickname Miguel Santos (first-timer Algenis Perez Soto) sports. Miguel has been playing baseball in a Dominican Republic camp for major league prospects since he was 16, and his entire neighborhood is looking to him to break big and bring the money back home. And indeed the Spanish-speaking pitcher's fastball earns him a trip to Arizona for a minor league tryout.

The smartest thing writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (they made the indie "Half-Nelson") do with this film is tie it to Sugar's perspective. He's a stranger in a strange land, ordering French toast every time he goes to a restaurant because it's the only thing he knows how to pronounce, patiently listening to both sage advice and tirades from coaches he can't understand.

As Sugar moves up to a higher-ranked minor league team in Iowa he endures all manner of slights and insults he can't comprehend, and those he does comprehend he can't do much about. He's a cog in a giant baseball machine.

But eventually he starts to both question the machine and his place in it, a process which leads him to yet another strange land.

Despite the system that uses kids as fodder and dreams as temptation, "Sugar" never preaches, it simply unveils, and that's its great strength. This is a film that finds certain purity in disillusionment and freedom in failure. Which may not be sweet, but it is tasty.

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Ellary Porterfield is Anne Higgins and Algenis Perez Soto plays Miguel, a ...