Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) has a devastating curveball and a million-dollar arm attached to his lanky, 20-year-old frame. Problem is, he's the product of a poor upbringing in the Dominican Republic—an island teeming with young players who are either on glorious ascents to American baseball's major leagues, or wasting away as has-beens in their early 20s, missing purpose and skill now that a baseball is no longer in their hands. To flee the island and make it to American baseball is a nearly impossible dream, and it's at the center of the absolutely stunning Sugar.
As a rookie for the (fictional) Kansas City Knights organization, Santos is schooled at a Dominican baseball academy, where his book learnin' is traded for an intense baseball education. He's fed and clothed, but the limited classroom instruction he receives is in the English pronunciation of baseball slang ("line drive," "ground ball"). It's a make-or-break structure, where players dream of million dollar paydays—but more often than not end up back home, futureless and broke.
Much like the game to which it pays respectful tribute, Sugar is a well-paced, painstakingly deliberate film. Lovingly written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the duo behind Half Nelson, Sugar patiently follows Santos from the red dirt fields of the Dominican baseball academy, to spring training in Arizona, to a culture-shocked stay in Iowa, and to his final destination of New York. Like most immigrant rookies caught in the wheels of an unforgiving system, Santos' deep-rooted love for the game he plays is eclipsed by a constant obligation to provide for his family, and while in the States, his talent is trumped by the vicious cycle of sports as a business. Sugar is created with both a precise eye for the intricate details of the game, and a sense of the immense weight hoisted upon young shoulders.
And while it's common knowledge that the tired genre of sports cinema panders in clichés, last-second heroics, and well-worn life lessons delivered by tenacious underdogs, Sugar steers clear of all those things. Santos' success on the mound feels secondary to his struggles to adapt as a person—a diner scene, where he labors to grasp the English-language menu, is both instantaneously memorable and soul-crushingly sad. This is a movie dedicated to baseball and life—not necessarily in that order—and rare has there been cinema on these subjects that comes across so truthful, heartbreaking, and beautiful.