A baseball movie, a stranger-in-a-strange-land movie, a movie about real people facing real challenges in the real world, Sugar is all that and more.
From its opening scenes in a Dominican Republic training camp to its player's-eye view inside the farm teams and minor league stadiums where America's national pastime unfolds - and on to its depiction of a vibrant immigrant community in New York City - Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's film is a modest but masterful triumph.
The writing/directing team behind Half Nelson, Boden and Fleck operate with a documentarian's sense of realism that may play against audience expectations - especially if you think Sugar's underdog hero, Miguel Santos (Algenis Pérez Soto), nicknamed Azúcar, or Sugar, is destined for Hall of Fame glory.
But then again, maybe he is.
A natural born pitching talent with a daunting knuckle curveball, Sugar is 19, the pride of his family, when he's plucked from the baseball academy near San Pedro de Macoris by a scout and sent to a spring training camp in Arizona. It's his first time on a plane, and the only English he knows is baseball English - strike, ball, bases loaded, home run.
The scenes of Sugar and his fellow Dominican and Latino colleagues trying to navigate the airports, the motels, the bars, are full of humor but also a deep empathy. Boden and Fleck convey the feeling of fear and, yes, alienation, that's familiar to anyone who's traveled in a foreign land without being able to communicate. (A beautiful moment: When, after several visits to a diner where he's repeatedly ordered French toast because it's the only thing he recognizes on the menu, a waitress brings Miguel a plate of eggs on the house - scrambled, fried, sunny side up, and identifies what each kind is.)
In Iowa, where Miguel dons the uniform of the single-A Bridgeport Swing, he lives with the Higginses, married seniors, in a comfy house where meals are preceded by prayer, and the table ricochets with awkward silence. But Helen (Ann Whitney) and Earl (Richard Bull) have hosted foreign players before, and they love the Swing - and are rooting for Miguel to succeed, both on the mound and in America.
He even begins a tentative friendship with the Higgenses' granddaughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield), a pretty girl who leads a Christian youth group.
Pérez Soto, a non-professional actor Boden and Fleck discovered when they held auditions in the Dominican Republic, has an easygoing grace and remarkable expressiveness. As his character is drawn deeper into the fiercely competitive world of professional baseball, it's impossible not to want him to succeed, and impossible not to feel dread when he takes a wrong turn, a misstep.
By the time he reaches the Bronx (not far from Yankee Stadium), his journey has taken several significant turns. And Sugar has taken us to places where we're forced to rethink not only our relationship with the sports movie formula - but more importantly our relationship with the world at large.