Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Production-Line Pitcher: A Rookie Baseball Player Is Chewed Up by the American Sports Industry

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Production-Line Pitcher: A Rookie Baseball Player Is Chewed Up by the American Sports Industry

Article excerpt

Ryan Gilbey

Sugar (15)

dirs: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

The first time we see Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a speed gun has him in its sights. It registers 9omph, but this 19-year-old Dominican is no boy racer: he's a pitcher, and it is the velocity of his nigh-on unhittable Exocet curveballs that is being measured. Miguel is a prodigy at a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic that grooms up-and-comers for the US leagues. (Around 15 per cent of major-league players are from the DR) His struggling family is pinning its hopes on him, and fortunately the lad is no slouch in the confidence department. "Baby," he tells his girlfriend, "there ain't nobody better than me." What was it again that pride comes before?

At his farewell bash before departing for a training facility in Arizona, Miguel is greeted adoringly by relatives he never knew he had, each one staking a claim to a crumb of his future wealth and celebrity. He receives them all with the same unimpressed blankness. In the newcomer Perez Soto, this film has a lead actor who can communicate anything while apparently doing nothing. He's not yet Robert Mitchum, but he has Mitchum's knack of looking sedate while absorbing the tension in a scene, keeping it inside himself like a 40-a-day man holding smoke in his lungs.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writer-director team behind Sugar and 2006's Half Nelson, throw so many curveballs of their own that it's hard to predict where the film is heading. Nevertheless, the gist of their argument becomes clear early on. During the bus ride to the airport to start his US adventure, Miguel gazes out of the window. A truck rattles past, carrying cages in which scrawny battery hens are squashed. Now hold that thought.


Miguel is eventually shipped on to Bridgetown, Iowa to join the local side there. He boards at the farmhouse of a sprightly elderly couple who incorporate into grace each evening a prayer for the team's success. And after a turbulent start to his first US season, Miguel is soon inspiring evangelism in the stands. So why isn't he happy?

The brilliance of Boden and Fleck's watchful, unforced style is that it doesn't alert us to how rum things are for Miguel until it's too late. His English is so paltry that he dare not eat anything at a diner but French toast, the one dish he knows how to order; the academy's method of teaching specialised phrases by rote ("I got it, I got it! …

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