Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On DVD: "Sugar"

There’s a moment about 80 minutes into Sugar when something miraculous happens. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away, but suffice it to say, the story has been moving in a fairly predictable direction (albeit in a subtle and interesting way), and then, in a manner that is unexpected but not a cheat, it takes a sudden, hard turn. I literally sat up in my chair, and leaned forward. That’s a great moment as a moviegoer—most of the time, even at good pictures, you’re watching a movie you’ve already seen. When this film takes its third act turn, we smile and get excited, because it has just become a movie we’ve never seen before.

Sugar is written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who helmed the miraculous 2006 film Half Nelson (frankly, their names alone were enough to pique my interest in this film, and I had the too-infrequent experience of watching it without knowing anything about it). Sugar shares that film’s low-key, lived-in feel, as well as its ability to rethink and work out from what sounds, in both cases, like a terrible, formulaic storyline.

Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) hails from the Dominican Republic, where major league baseball teams run training camps, hoping to find the next Sammy Sosa. Sugar is a pitcher, and his knuckle curve captures the eye of a visiting scout for Kansas City, who sends him to the States for spring training. From there, he is assigned to the franchise’s single-A team in Iowa; he lives with a couple of team boosters, develops a crush on their granddaughter, and becomes something of a local celebrity, until… well, I’ll just leave it at that.

The story of the young, talented innocent and his rise to fame and fortune has been told so many times (both within and outside of the world of pro sports) that it is easy to presume that Boden and Fleck were going for a more commercial narrative this time out, based at least on the broad strokes of the story. It follows a very traditional three-act structure, with the first act focused on his home life, home town, and home base at the training camp, and the second concentrating on his time in Iowa. The general recipe for these sections is familiar, though made more interesting by the additional ingredient of Sugar’s immigrant experience, as well as Boden and Fleck’s lean, efficient sense of storytelling.

Even in its more conventional segments, their screenplay never plays it too easy; there’s no obvious exposition, no amped-up conflict. The picture isn’t rushed or pushy—it rolling along with grace and ease, and when it comes to a pat sequence (like Sugar’s first big game), it underplays the tension with no-nonsense, hard-cut editing. The rising-star montage is, presumably, a necessity in this kind of story, but when they indulge in one, it’s scored with TV on the Radio and kept tight with a restless camera and some unconventional framing. Throughout the film, they’re skilled at compressing action, jumping into a scene as late as possible and leaving at the first available moment, and they can tell a full story in a brief, compact sequence or even a single shot (as when we find out what’s become of his girl back home).

But it’s only when we reach that remarkable third act that we realize how ingeniously the script has been constructed, how shrewdly the duo has turned our expectations of a sports-driven yarn inside out. This is not a film that traffics in rags-to-riches clichés, and its logical and moving yet entirely unpredictable third act is just plain riveting. It’s a film that sneaks up on you, working up considerable affection and empathy for its protagonist without straining for it, right up through its warmly melancholy final notes (which are held ruefully for just the right amount of time, and not a moment longer).

“Remember,” Sugar is told, “life gives you lots of opportunities. Baseball only gives you one.” What is most remarkable about Sugar is that it is a film about life, not baseball—there is no “big game” and no “moment of truth”, none of the hackneyed sequences that we’ve come to dread from sports stories. It’s a film about the myriad of opportunities, not just the one.

"Sugar" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 1st, but a warning: word is that it's been re-cut from its original R rating to a PG-13 version for its standard-def release. While these alterations are certainly minimal (a few isolated profanities and a quick shot of a porn movie playing on a hotel television), the PG-13 version does not represent the film as it was released to theaters; its creation is apparently an attempt to open the film up to a family audience. At any rate, the good news is that the Blu-ray disc presents the film in its original, unaltered form.

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