160) Sugar (2008) Dir: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck Date Released: April 2009 Date Seen: June 3rd, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
It's a shame that the dedication to characterizing details that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck invest in Sugar is periodically offset by blunt reminders that the filmmaking duo are obviously not of the character's world. The smallest gaffes are capable of smothering the most delicate feeling of alienation that one gets from the periodic use of Dardenne-esque tracking shots, making it impossible for me to see the forest from the trees on this one.
Fleck and Boden's storytelling errors hardly outweigh the tact and thoughtfulness of most of their script's dialogue or their aesthetic sensibilities--the Dardennes may have used this technique to better effect before, but I'll be damned if I wasn't struck dumb when Miguel "Sugar" Santos (superbly played by Algenis Perez Soto in his debut performance) first steps out of his team's bullpen onto the field--but Sugar's failures nag at me more than its considerable and much-touted successes. Maybe it's because I expected more from the duo after their stirring debut film, Half Nelson, won me over in spite of myself, or maybe not. Whatever the reason, while I felt like Santos' story was not told condescendingly, I did feel it was related imprecisely.
My discomfort with Sugar mainly stems from heavy-handed redundancy in the way we get insight to Santos' feelings, especially when it comes to establishing how he sees his fears played out in the fortune of previous Domincan ballplayers. For instance, the scene where he overhears fellow teammate Jorge Ramirez's (Rayniel Rufino) phone call home and the previous scene where Santos worriedly stares down a local trash-talking has-been were both too much of the same thing. On their own, either scene is perhaps too blunt to establish the character's concerns, which, thanks to the ensconcing narrative that these scenes are a part of, never warrants such unnecessarily direct reminders of Santos' concerns; combined, they're fodder for the cutting room floor.
Fleck and Boden also make a conscious but not consistently successful attempt to avoid cliches in stereotypical, character-defining situations. The confrontation at the club after Santos' first game and his flirtation with Anne "the farmer's daughter" Higgins (Ellary Porterfield) are both resolved quietly but are once again unnecessary and painfully obvious means of showing us that Santos is persona non grata in America. Again, these scenes would in any other film be insignificantly problematic, but considering the expertly handled way Santos breaks away from much more important relationships, like with the team and with his Dominican girlfriend, they seem like the tiny specks of dirt that eventually are all I saw in an otherwise well-crafted film.