“Sugar” is a critically acclaimed indie film about a 20-year-old Dominican pitcher’s minor league baseball season in Iowa. “Half Nelson,” the last collaboration of its married auteurs, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, brought Ryan Gosling a Best Actor nomination as a caring white liberal teacher in a Brooklyn slum school attended by African-Americans and Dominicans. Because numerous Dominican immigrants in New York City are failed minor leaguers, “Sugar” was a logical next film for the pair.
This movie is about a black Dominican, but it was very much made for white Americans. Indeed, “Sugar” exemplifies Sundance movies. It’s so sensitive, subtle, soft-spoken, averse to crowd-pleasing gimmicks, and generally beholden to the Stuff White People Like rulebook that few ballplayers of any nationality would pay to see it. Dodger slugger Manny Ramirez would snore so loudly through it that the audience couldn’t hear the soundtrack’s climactic song: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sung in Spanish.
Boden and Fleck wanted not a tale of triumph, but a statistically representative illustration of the typical Dominican athlete’s brief playing career and eventual transition into being an illegal immigrant in the South Bronx. ...
The young ballplayer claims he’s nicknamed “Sugar” because he’s “so sweet with the ladies,” but Boden and Fleck intend their film’s title to convey that by signing so many Dominican teens, baseball teams are, like sugar companies, neocolonialist exploiters. ... The real scandal is that big league baseball has facilitated the illegal immigration of tens of thousands of washed-up uneducated jocks. The MLB privatizes profits and socializes costs.
The irony in this trend of dramas striving to be “more documentary-like” is that the best documentaries are far more satisfyingly dramatic than “Sugar.” For example, Werner Herzog’s popular documentary “Grizzly Man” culminates with the annoying protagonist being devoured by a bear. Documentaries that follow somebody as ho-hum as Sugar are unlikely to get widely distributed or even finished.
April 14, 2009
From my review in The American Conservative: