Movie Review: Sugar

There are a lot of good baseball movies, and even more bad ones. But if you are a diehard fan of baseball, the common denominator of almost all of them is that the better they are, the more the little details ring false.

Bull Durham’s a great movie, and no movie has ever done a better job of shining a light on what life in the minors is like, but whenever Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) goes into his windup, his awful arm action is a flashing neon sign that screams “this is a movie.”

But from the first pitch Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) throws at the start of “Sugar,” it’s clear this isn’t like any baseball movie you’ve seen before. “Sugar” is a fictional movie that feels like it could just as easily be a documentary. It’s simply the most authentic feeling baseball movie I’ve ever seen.

In fact, because it’s fictional, it’s able to tell the story of Dominican players and their adjustment to life in the U.S. better than any non-fiction retelling ever could. Instead of getting bogged down in details, simple scenes like Santos trying to figure out how to order eggs in English spell out his dizzying attempt to adapt to a new society while trying to succeed on the mound.

Santos is his family’s meal ticket, just like many young Dominican players playing at academies around the island. His mother asks him every day if he’s being sent to the States, and everyone knows that if/when he gets the call, most of his paycheck will be coming back home to help his mom, sister and brother live just a little bit better.

It’s not giving anything away to say that Santos does make it to the U.S., and the bigger part of the movie is seeing Santos try to adjust to life in the low minors, knowing that his family and everyone back home are relying on him fulfilling his, and their, dream of making it to the big leagues.

The movie jumps back and forth between English and Spanish with subtitles. While some may find that a little offputting, it is a necessary device to show the difficulty of ending up in a country where you don’t speak the language, don’t recognize the food and where the baseball diamond is the only real reminder of home.

The lead actor, Soto, was an unknown who was cast out of the Dominican Republic. He clearly knows his way around the diamond and it’s not hard to believe him as a young minor league pitcher—he actually spent a couple of years bouncing around tryouts trying to get signed as a middle infielder. The settings are authentic, as the scenes in the Dominican were shot at the Diamondbacks’ Dominican Academy and the Swing of the Quad Cities (since renamed the Quad City River Bandits) plays the role of Santos’ fictional low Class A team.

“Sugar” is not a big budget release, but it is making it into theaters in most parts of the country. Whether you can find it in a theater or have to wait to see it on DVD, Sugar is worth discovering.