- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

There have been a boatload of typical sports movies in recent years. Formulaic and predictable, they come and go every six months or so, blurring into one grand narrative in which a cancer survivor overcomes racial prejudice and economic inequality to show up the evil coach on the opposite side of the field and prove that he belongs on the football field/in the pool/on the baseball diamond.

“Sugar” isn’t like that. It’s a story about personalities, not statistics or championships, set in an overlooked corner of the sports world: the baseball academies in the Dominican Republic.

Every major-league team operates a baseball school in the impoverished island nation, snapping up young talent early in the hopes of eventually bringing the next Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz to the United States. As the ranks of great players from the Dominican Republic have swelled in recent years, one question hasn’t really been asked: What happens to the hundreds of players who don’t make it to the pros?

“Sugar” tells the story of one such player, Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto). As the movie opens, he is a pitcher for the Dominican Republican affiliate of the fictional Kansas City Knights. Though promising, he still has a long way to go before setting foot in a professional baseball stadium. Think of these academies as finishing schools for athletes: In addition to tweaking swing mechanics and fielding grounders, the teenagers learn rudimentary English (how to call for a fly ball and other diamond necessities) and the importance of showing up to work on time.

The camaraderie among teammates at the camp runs only so deep, as each player knows that just a few people will be invited to spring training each year. Needless to say, Miguel is one of the lucky ones. But how will his time in the United States go? What happens when he hits a stumbling block on his way up the ladder? Does he have the mental fortitude to make it to the top?

Mr. Soto anchors the movie, delivering a believable performance as the fish out of water. His struggles with the English language — and the awkward help offered to him by friendly locals once he makes it stateside — give the movie a greater depth of feeling. The increasing distance he feels toward both his new teammates and the game itself can only be appreciated if the audience is made to feel the barrier that language difficulties present.

Husband-and-wife writing-directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”) move the story forward without compromising the personalities of the individuals its world comprises. Though a little long at two hours, “Sugar” is a treat for any serious student of the game.

★★★

TITLE: “Sugar”

RATING: R (Language, some sexuality and brief drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.sonyclassics.com/sugar/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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