DESPITE A slew of baseball movies in the past two decades the Latino experience in the game has gone largely unexamined. Hispanic characters such as Pedro Cerrano, the Jobu-worshipping slugger in Major League, are usually there purely for comic relief. That all changes with Sugar, a film that poignantly explores the loneliness, cultural disconnection and cut-throat competition experienced by a Latino prospect thrown into the cornfields of Iowa on his first minor league stop.
Apart from its masterly storytelling, the film's greatest strength is its authenticity, much of which comes from Algenis Perez Soto. He plays Miguel (Sugar) Santos, a Dominican pitcher who, armed with a biting knuckle curve, is trying to pull his family out of poverty. The 25-year-old Perez Soto was a shortstop in San Pedro de Macorís. He gave up his big league ambition but continued to play pickup baseball and softball, which is how filmmakers spotted him and asked him to audition. "The only camera I had in front of me before was just to take a picture," says Perez Soto.
Despite his lack of acting experience, he delivers a soulful performance. In one scene Miguel asks a teammate who is a multimillion-dollar bonus baby fresh out of Stanford what he would do if his baseball career were cut short. The teammate says he would probably go to grad school. Perez Soto pensively gazes at the floor and says nothing, which says everything: Baseball is Miguel's only option. Perez Soto recalls screening the movie in Santo Domingo with David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez in the audience. "They said, 'It's really like this. This is how it is in the minor leagues. Everything we had to go through,'!" Perez Soto says.
The movie was written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who cowrote the stark, critically acclaimed 2006 drama Half Nelson (which Fleck directed). Before writing the script for Sugar, they interviewed scores of former Dominican prospects in New York City and the Dominican Republic. "People were so open with their stories," Boden says. "They wanted to give us as much as we needed in order to make sure that this story was told in the right way." And in Sugar, it is.