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Sugar (15)

A rookie baseball player is chewed up by the American sports industry

The first time we see Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Pérez Soto), a speed gun has him in its sights. It registers 90mph, 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 Pérez 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!”, “Home run”) has not prepared him adequately for life in a foreign land. When Miguel’s coach warns him after a tantrum that all actions have consequences, it hits you that this lesson is equally applicable to an industry that produces athletes incapable of finding contentment beyond the baseball diamond.

In packaging their sociological critique, Boden and Fleck play the long game. The subject of doping gets one tidy scene to itself, racism another. Their insights come in the form of fleeting asides, sometimes a little too fleeting. But their understatement pays off in moments such as Miguel noticing the label on a pack of T-shirts in the mall: “Made in the Dominican Republic”. The directors know they don’t need to insert a shot of Miguel’s mother slaving over a sweatshop sewing machine back home, since we can provide that flashback to the start of the film ourselves. And Miguel’s isolation is often distilled poetically into cinematic language. The despondent, nocturnal trudge from his Arizona hotel room to a bowling alley and back again, with the camera trailing loyally behind, adds up to a sequence so stark, the Dardenne brothers would be proud to call it their own.

If Miguel’s anxieties and disappointments feel familiar, that may be because Sugar echoes strongly the magnificent 1995 documentary Hoop Dreams, which charted four years in the lives of two African-American teenagers trying to make it as basketball stars. Both films illuminate the escape route that sport represents for the poor, the dread of career-curtailing injury, the stereophonic clamour from needy family members, and from relentlessly tough coaches.

Just as Hoop Dreams had the urgency of great storytelling, Sugar exhibits the patience of the most penetrating documentary. The least of their achievements is to dissuade those of us averse to modern sporting hyperbole from ever again saying: “It’s only a game.”

Sugar (15)
dirs: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.