sugar, directed by anna boden and ryan fleck (female director alert!!!!), is a feature film but could have been a documentary about the meat market that thrives on the dominican republic-US border and draws poor young men to the great country to the north with a hope and a prayer of hitting it big in the baseball world. from what i understood (and from listening to a great fresh air interview with the directors), possibly talented kids get signed for a pittance while they are still in the DR. there, they participate in rigorous baseball camps where they can end up being parked for as long as a couple of years. these camps are owned by big US teams, which send regular scouts to see how the chickies are doing. occasionally, some talented young guy gets picked and sent to the minors. there, he either makes it or he crashes.

clearly, the pressure is tremendous. for these young DR boys, this is a family ticket out of poverty. but it’s not just that. they are housed with volunteer families for whom baseball is a matter of personal and community pride, and whose weight of expectation they must also shoulder. lost in the mid-country towns whose language they don’t understand and whose culture they understand even less, these kids go through intense loneliness, dislocation, and all the trauma that accrues to being treated as a thing rather than a person. basically, the kids with the biggest nerves are the ones who make it.

the protagonist, miguel santos aka sugar, does not have nerves of steel. he is brooding, sensitive, gentle, not particularly sociable, and definitely lost.

i found it interesting, sad, and also heartening to see at the end that there is this whole community of shafted caribbean players who have created their own amateur league in nyc and recreated a community of their own. it reminded me of the cricket community portrayed in the novel Netherland. also, in new york, thanks santa maria, people speak spanish.

not a masterpiece, but good enough. maybe a bit slow at points, but sugar’s face is lovely to look at, so full of earnestness and pain and endurance, and boden and fleck make good use of this (i think non-professional) young actor to alert us to yet another form of human trafficking.

anyone else has seen this?

2 thoughts on “sugar”

  1. More than just good enough, I think. This is a joy to watch. The political economy of major league baseball is there, on full view, but this is not so much a savage indictment as a labor of love. The story of Santos tells us about the baseball meat market in the DR, as Gio says, but it tells us as at least as much about the US. The scenes in which Santos is playing in Iowa for a KC minor league franchise are beautifully filmed, in bowling alleys, malls, churches, and so on. They also tell us about the yearning of poor families in the DR. There is one great scene when Santos get the call to spring training, and his family and friends hold a farewell party; person after person comes up, wishes Santos well, and offers some connection, however weak, to justify ingratiating him or herself, in the hope that he strikes gold and remembers them. It is a reminder that the lottery, or its sports equivalent, is as viable a route out of poverty as the more celebrated work ethic. Really a good movie. Thanks for the rec, Gio.

  2. glad you liked it, chris. as for the US part (glad you brought it up), it was hard for me not to see sugar’s encounter with this country through the eyes of much younger me coming here for the first time. say: people speaking kind words to you every turn of the way, tons of well-meaning words you don’t understand, bullet-sprays of smiling words that exhaust you and make you feel entirely unseen (don’t you realize i don’t understand a word you say? why do you keep talking to me?)

    say: jaw aching at the end of the day from all the smiling you need to do in order to make up for your deafness, your embarrassing isolation, your being effectively alien to your surroundings.

    this is captured well in sugar’s face, a mixture of befuddlement, desire to please, and hurt.

    it hurts to watch the coach give him a pep talk, because you know this speech sugar very much needs is entirely lost on him.

    so all the well-meaningness — of the elderly hosting couple, of the pretty grand-daughter, of the church kids — is also grating cultural insensitivity, a sort of violence. if i can push the envelop, sugar is spoken to the way animals are spoken to by their owners: lovingly, cuddlingly, but with no expectation of more than minimun understanding.

    the many scenes of sugar alone on the bus looking out of the window at endless grain fields contrasts with imagery of his crowded and lively home barrio.

    of course it’s not all as bleak as that. this is not a bleak movie. it is, as you say, a labor of love. there are lovely moments in which sugar hangs out with his mates, speaking spanish, finally opening up that brooding, lonely face of his. and other nice moments in which people, like the stanford-grad all-american brad, make a genuine effort to connect with him, and they succeed, and it’s nice.

    my favorite scene is the one in which sugar hopelessly orders yet another round of french toast and the waitress brings him a set of eggs prepared in three different ways and schools him in how to order them.

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