The title character in the duo's follow-up to Half Nelson is a MLB minor-leaguer who originated from the Dominican developmental baseball leagues. What Boden and Fleck end up doing with Sugar (aka Miguel Santos), and his big league ballpark aspirations, is use him as a pawn in their cynical plan to squash the "American dream" ideal of the wide-eyed immigrant. However, what Sugar's patronizing let-me-tell-your-story-for-you approach ultimately ends up arguing in favor of is a segregated America. This isn't deliberate, mind you. Boden and Fleck aren't bigots. It's simply the end result of soft-headed white guilt filmmaking, a point-of-view that allegorizes Single-A baseball life with modern day slave labor and subtly portrays fly-over America as an unwelcoming region (yawn).
Sugar opens on the sunrise glow of a baseball field in the Dominican Republic. Moving to scenes within the home that Sugar shares with his mother, brother, and sister (who argue over watching American Idol vs. baseball... two multi-racial institutions that portray a post-racial America greater than Boden and Fleck would ever feign to), interiors and faces are lit with a rich and hopeful glow. Colors bounce off cement walls in the night streets like a well-photographed and hip Levi's commercial. That gets contrasted with the stale, old farm house of an elderly Iowan couple who temporarily house Sugar during his stint at the Bridgetown affiliate. In the Iowa climate, Sugar's hopeful aesthetic sheen is now gone. Check the way Boden and Fleck shoot Sugar at the dinner table with the couple and their extended family. The distance between Sugar and his hosts - sitting stiff in straight-back wooden chairs - is palpable and uncomfortable. When the old man addresses Sugar, it comes out in loud, drawn-out syllables as if he's communicating with a child. Oh yes, behind that camera, the condescension is dripping.
It is only when Sugar makes his way to New York, and houses up with a Puerto Rican couple, that he appears refreshed and once again "at home": lively, spirited, smiley. Here at the dinner table, Sugar and hosts are shot from tight angles and in close quarters, their body language giving off feelings of warmth and acceptance. The rich aroma from Sugar's Dominican home life has returned.
Had Boden and Fleck portrayed Sugar's new American experience as a mix of cultural clashes and awakenings from Iowa on into New York, then Sugar might have been relevant. Instead, the filmmakers erect convenient, prejudicial walls where they see fit. Sugar gets turned away or rejected at almost every corner in Iowa... often by corn-fed white males, of course. He catches angry looks in a night club, racial slurs from a batter, trepidation from some teens, grief from a coach, discipline from the elderly couple, mixed messages from a girl who rejects his kiss (she only wanted to get close to him so she could recruit him for Jesus). The only true companionship offered to Sugar, while in Bridgetown, comes from fellow ballplayer Brad Johnson, who is black. In Sugar's most cringe-worthy moment, Brad leans over to Sugar on the team bus and asks him if he's into hipster rock heroes TV On The Radio. Yeesh.
Right now, our world is ripe for thoughtful films about the immigrant experience. But Boden and Fleck come at this topic like a pair who have solely used ZNet commentary to equip their artistic affronts, not two open hearts with a genuine perspective to match Sugar's tone of realism. Pop that bubble, guys.