Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck. Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Ann Whitney, Ellary Porterfield, Jaime Tirelli. (2009, R, 114 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 8, 2009
Co-writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck shot to prominence with their affecting debut feature, the middle-class drug study Half Nelson starring Ryan Gosling (who earned an Oscar nomination for the role). Pity then, that their sophomore effort feels more like a first film. The overlong Sugar follows one major league hopeful's path from a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic to stateside spring training and single-A ball in rural Iowa. Miguel Santos (Soto), nicknamed Sugar, is the cock of the walk in his native San Pedro de Macorís, but once he graduates to the minors, he hits the same stumbling block as so many other kids labeled gifted and talented – that is, when the pool widens, one's specialness tends to diffuse. Sugar also has to grapple with cultural isolation, the specter of a "game-over" injury, and the pressure of keeping his family out of poverty – a staggering amount of responsibility, really, for a horny, homesick 19-year-old who doesn't understand the language. There's ambition and real achievement in Fleck and Boden's film, and my complaints are mostly minor, but from early on – the ill-placed opening title, five minutes in, in fact – I found myself resisting Sugar. It's well-staged and well-shot, but what I remember most are two irritating, jerky zooms onto Sugar's face that felt like Law & Order camerawork. Boden and Fleck used Broken Social Scene to effectively score Half Nelson, and the music here is mostly unobtrusive, but what lingers are the odd, off-putting choices: a Garden State-like cringer ("this song will change your life") involving TV on the Radio and a Spanish-language version of Leonard Cohen's overdone "Hallelujah" (I don't care if it's sung in Swahili – pop culture needs to put away that song for good). Sugar is a curiosity – too somber for a picaresque, too arm's-length for much emotional effect – and while it's interesting, it's never truly absorbing.