Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck made a noteworthy narrative feature debut with Half Nelson, and they establish themselves as filmmakers of uncommon integrity, compassion, and vision with their superb follow-up, Sugar. While the film deals with familiar elements -- it is a fish-out-of-water story and a sports drama -- the filmmakers scrupulously avoid cliche, and in their own unobtrusively artful way, subvert audience expectations. While the film isn't really "about" baseball, so much as it's about a young man's coming to terms with what he wants out of life, Boden and Fleck have done their research. They get the baseball right -- a rare feat -- and they manage to tell a thoroughly compelling story that we've never seen onscreen before. Because of its unsentimental, straightforward script and its consistently excellent acting, Sugar feels completely naturalistic and true-to-life, to the extent that some might overlook the expert craft these filmmakers bring to bear. For example, there's a shot in the middle of the film -- following Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto in an understated and wholly convincing performance) from his hotel room, through the hotel's lobby and game room, to the bowling alley, where he briefly sees another (American) minor leaguer socializing -- that wonderfully captures where Miguel is in that moment, physically and emotionally. When Miguel, who's spent much of the film in small-town Iowa and Arizona, wanders into a Bronx coffee shop, we fully empathize with his relief at simply being able to speak his native language and be understood. Sugar may not go where its audience expects, or even wants it to go, but it is full of so much humor, grace, and unexpected detail, and arrives in such a truthful place, that in the end it's far more enthralling than the typical rags-to-riches tale one might have anticipated.
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