as the mainstreams media crucifies yankee outfielder alex rodriguez, indie filmmakers ryan fleck and anna boden's new film sugar takes a sympathetic look at the life of a fictional baseball prodigy from the dominican republic-and crucifies him with kindness. miguel "sugar" santos (played by algenis perez soto) leaves his impoverished home to work his way up through the minor leagues; first at a training camp in phoenix, arizona, and then for an affiliate team in bridgetown, iowa. something's queasily familiar about miguel's culture shock and it becomes apparent when he watches a tv broadcast of spike lee's awful, excruciatingly patronizing hurricane katrina documentary when the levees broke. fleck and boden work the same guiltand pity-inducing routine. although their hearts are bleeding, they look down their noses at miguel's loneliness and disorientation.
sugar denies the outdoorsy, physical pleasures that make baseball an opulent spectacle even to non-sports fans. it also denies miguel any native intelligence or pride in talent (other than carpentry-more crucifix symbology). he lacks a jock's cocksure confidence. his slow pick-up on english makes him seem nearly retarded. and though santos' dark-skinned, bony face makes him resemble a cross between frank sinatra in take me out to the ball game and michael jackson in martin scorsese's bad, his blackness gets contrasted against pale sunlight. he's aestheticized like the poor immigrant creatures in pedro costa art films.
what's going on here is the flipside of american sports journalism's racism. instead of the barely disguised contempt for a-rod's race, class, looks, skill and paycheck-as demonstrated in the steroids witch hunt recently initiated by sports illustrated-the makers of sugar use narrative condescension.their empathy requires miguel be pathetic. such demeaning lower class portraiture has become rampant-in man push cart, frozen river, ballast and fleck-boden's half nelson (with its lonely, pitiable black teenager who identifies with her crack-addict white schoolteacher). sugar pushes condescension even further with its emphasis on miguel's alienation; at his lowest, drug-addled point, he drapes a towel over his head, refusing to watch a teammate's play.
a sense of athletic savvy, ethnic camaraderie and male competitiveness enriched charles stone iii's bernie mac baseball film mr. 3000. although sugar isn't intended to be entertaining, i am sweating fleck-boden's misguided seriousness.they're probably nice people who cannot fathom that they have fallen into the same cultural trap as sports journalism bigots. fleck-boden are as hungup on white pathology as half nelson's exposé of self-flagellating liberals.there are kindly scenes featuring elderly white christians with whom miguel boards (although the non-discussion of religion seems odd) and a touching one where a white waitress shows miguel the difference between scrambled, over-easy and sunny-side-up eggs. see what i mean?
these gaffes are hard to take given fleck- boden's dull technique. their hipster use of tv on the radio and yet another rendition of leonard cohen's "hallelujah" (music to make a merengue native like miguel retch) reveals their own hipster slant on black culture. an alienation sequence following miguel through a casino overuses steadicam instead of precise editing and composition. such indie banality-linked to liberal message-mongering-proves fleck-boden go into a slump long before rookie miguel. despite miguel's late-inning homage to the great roberto clemente, a movie like sugar makes you understand a-rod's disgust. -- sugar directed by ryan fleck and anna boden runtime: 120 min.