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by Mark Elijah Rosenberg
January 26th, 2008

SUGAR_filmstill4-SMALL.jpgI think that Dan’s going to write a post as well, but “Sugar” is such a rich film there’s plenty to write about, and I’m eager to share my delight with this film. What I love about Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s films is that they find ways to externalize internal struggles. Unlike most films, in which resilient characters battle outside forces, in their wonderful new film “Sugar” the drama is all about the lead character’s internal fear, or even cowardice. It’s rare in films to see characters succumb to uncertainty: the feeling is subtle, but in this film the writing and acting render it as potent and powerful as any grand emotion you’ll ever see in narrative filmmaking.

The film tracks about a year in the life of a professional baseball prospect (nicknamed “Sugar,” and played by Algenis Perez Soto, a non-professional actor plucked from the ballfields of his native Dominican Republic), and as a baseball fan and player myself, I was really eager to check this film out. But “Sugar” is much more than a baseball movie: it is an immigrant tale, a coming-of-age story, and an examination of to what extent we all have the courage to truly follow our dreams.

As a young prospect, Sugar faces incredibly long odds of actually making the major leagues. But the game is not the hard part–leave that to Hollywood sports melodramas. Acclimating to life away from home is the real challenge, sent off as he is to the strange foreign land of Bridgetown “Eye-A,” as Sugar pronounces ‘IA’ (Iowa) in the first indication of the daunting (and often humorous) language barrier facing Sugar.

SUGAR_filmstill5-SMALL.jpgAgain, the struggles are always fascinatingly internal as Sugar has to discern friends from enemies with only scraps of language available to him. There’s the compassionate waitress who helps him order new food, and the thugs in the club who attack him for unknown reasons. There’s the concerned foster family, who only confuse things further with their sweet but futile attempts at Spanish (’soap’ comes across as ’sopa,’ the Spanish word for ’soup.’) But most importantly there’s the kind-hearted manager, who tries to relate to downtrodden Sugar, but can’t get through the linguistic differences. When the ballplayer finally hears some words he understands, “work hard,” he lashes back that he does work hard, and you can just see the reputation of another “hard-to-coach Latino ballplayer” growing.

In the end, Sugar can’t take the pressure. He leaves the team and heads to the Bronx, looking for low-pressure work as a dishwasher and a carpenter. Will he give professional baseball another try eventually? Will he regret not playing out the string? Perhaps. The stakes in this film are not artificially high–it’s not the World Series he’s missing; when he flees to New York, he’s not facing life or death drama. The brilliance of the film is the simple and thereby universal struggle that is rendered in intimate detail. Sugar’s debatable cowardice is an act that hit me at the core of my own self-confidence: do I have the courage to give myself completely to my dream? Would it be okay if I didn’t? “Sugar” is an emotionally complex and astonishingly touching portrait of a young man playing out these same questions.

SUGAR_filmstill3-SMALL.jpgHere at Rooftop, we’re hoping we’ll get a chance to take this wonderful film to the ball fields of New York and provide a powerful and unique viewing experience where so many baseball dreams have been born, and where so many have faded into the dirt.  

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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