Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck do with their second film what they did with their first. Half Nelson (2006), written by Boden and directed by Fleck, is the story of an inner-city basehead teacher who tries to reach out to his students, one in particular, while also dealing with his own demons. This premise is so rife for either schmaltz or cliche, or both, the fact that Boden and Fleck - along with substantial help from star Ryan Gosling - manage to create a thoughtful thesis on responsibility without nary a misstep in it, is an amazing cinematic feat. And now they've gone and done it again.
Their latest, Sugar (Boden joining as co-director this time around) is the story of a twenty year old Dominican baseball pitcher trying to make his way up the minor league ladder of success in America. Hanging as precariously over the precipice of cliche as Half Nelson did, again these two bright young filmmakers have pulled off a miracle. Smartly written and wryly funny while at the same time evoking real unmanipulative emotion (an accomplishment not many sports movies can boast) Sugar resonates with a subtle power that manages to break through the walls of schmaltz and cliche into a whole other realm of cinema.
First time actor, Algenis Perez Soto plays Miguel "Sugar" Santos with the subtle nuances of a seasoned pro and this only adds to the legitimate realness of the film. With not a false note around, Sugar is a tender, bittersweet movie that never ceases to surprise. There is one spectacular scene (among many) that stands out and plays as the catalyst for the film as a whole. Sugar, barely able to speak English other than a few baseball phrases he is taught in the Dominican training camp he attended before getting signed by the fictional Kansas City Knights, leaves his hotel room, and with the camera following him in an extended uncut tracking shot he strides through an intertwining series of garish gamerooms, poolhalls, restaurants and bowling alleys. It is in this "Scorsese shot" that we see Miguel is overwhelmed by everything around him and it is at this point that we know he may not make it after all.
Whether he makes it or not I won't spoil here (though the outcome should be obviously written), but then the particular question is not all that important for though this is obviously a baseball movie, the sport is not what is important here. The important thing is Miguel and his personal triumph or failure - or both. His realization of the fallacy of the American dream. Defying cliche once more, Boden and Fleck show the struggle of the indomitable spirit without ever sinking to obvious exploitation. A film that shows not only the struggle of one man but the economic whole that is major league baseball and its blatant disregard for humanity and dignity in carding and discarding its players like baseball cards flicking around in a kid's bicycle spokes. A triumph in not only acting and writing (and it is beautifully shot as well) but also a triumph in creating art from the edge of cliche. [05/24/09]