AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Sugar
Director: Anna Boden (Dir)
Release Date:   3 Apr 2009
Duration (in mins):  114 or 117-118
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Cast: Jose Rijo  (Alvarez)
  Walki Cuevas  (Alfonso)
  Algenis Perez Soto  (Miguel)
 

Summary: In the Dominican Republic at the Kansas City Knight’s Professional Baseball Academy in Boca Chica, several young men train diligently in hopes of being selected by a team in the United States. Nineteen year-old pitcher Miguel Santos, who is nicknamed Sugar because of his fondness for desserts, takes pride in his abilities, but is surprised when a coach demonstrates an unfamiliar spiked curve ball. In addition to training and physical workouts, Miguel and the other athletes receive daily English lessons based on baseball terminology. On his days off, Sugar takes the bus to his home village to visit his mother, grandmother, sister Erica and little brother Luis, who live together in a small house that Sugar is helping to improve with his small academy bonus. After a romantic evening with his girlfriend Sofia, Sugar promises her that one day he will live in America and own a Cadillac in which he will drive her across the sea. The next evening, Sugar visits with several friends and speaks confidently of his progress at the academy, but one former ball player cautions him not to take his success for granted, as he could end up selling cell phones on a street corner like many failed players. Back in Boca Chica, Sugar resumes training. When one of the other players is dropped by the academy, the others give him a farewell party and wonder about their own futures. Before a big game, a nervous Sugar vomits on the field, but then pitches well, only to be pulled when he throws the ball directly at a cocky batter. Reprimanded with the catcher later, Sugar is then surprised to learn that the two have been selected for spring training at the Knight’s camp in Arizona. Back at home, Sugar’s family give him a rousing good-luck party and he is surprised when several strangers insist they are related to him. Sugar and several other academy ballplayers make their first airplane flight and are met in Phoenix by fellow Knight’s player, Jorge Ramirez. After warning the new arrivals about the pricey charges of using the hotel room minibars and television cable, Jorge, a good friend of Sugar’s, takes the group to breakfast and teaches them how to order French toast. At the training facility, Jorge tells Sugar that a player recently got a contract to a Double-A team, then admits that he himself was with a Double-A team before incurring a serious knee injury. On the first day of training, the Knight’s coach tells the players that there are fifty positions across the league for which the seventy-five of them will be vying. Although confident, Sugar is disappointed that in his first performance on the pitching mound, he is only able to get one strike off the camp’s best batter. Calling home later, Sugar boasts to Sofia that he struck out the batter, but she laughs and calls him a liar. Over the next few days, Sugar’s pitching solidifies and he becomes friends with Brad Johnson, a well respected athlete who played college baseball at Stanford University. Weeks later, one of the Dominican Republic players, Antonio, learns that he is to be sent back to Boca Chica, while Sugar finds out that he, Jorge and Brad have been selected to move up to the Knights’ minor league affiliate, The Swing, in Bridgetown, Iowa. That night, Sugar telephones his mother to relate the good news. A few days later, in the unfamiliar lush Iowa farmland, Sugar moves into the home of Earl and Helen Higgins, an elderly couple devoted to the Swing who annually offer lodging to a young aspiring player. At dinner, Sugar meets the Higgins adult children, Michael and Hilary, and Hilary’s teenage daughter Anne, and is uncomfortable with his limited English. A couple of days afterward, Jorge, who is familiar with Bridgetown, introduces Sugar to a shopping mall and promises to take him to Big Muddy’s bar one evening. Soon after, Sugar starts in his first game with the Swing, as Earl and Helen cheer from the stands. When Sugar walks the first batter, Jorge comes to the mound to reassure him that the game is the same as back home. Relaxing, Sugar goes on to strike out the next several batters. At Big Muddy’s a few nights later, Sugar is amazed by the informal, highly sexualized dancing and longs for the salsa. When Sugar and Jorge dance with two American girls, a local man is offended by the foreigners and tries to start a brawl before his friends drag him away. Attending church with the devout Higgins family later, Sugar remains frustrated by his inability to understand much of the sermon. Settling into the season, Sugar grows closer to Brad, who teases him for not being familiar with historical baseball greats, including Puerto Rican legend, Roberto Clemente. Attracted to Anne, Sugar agrees to attend a get-together with her, only to discover that it is a church social. Delighted to be receiving a regular paycheck, Sugar sends most of the money home to his family, whom he telephones weekly. During an away game, Sugar grows unsettled when he overhears Jorge telling his family on the phone that despite his best efforts, he feels that he is not doing well. On the same trip, Sugar seeks out Brad, only to find that, because Brad does not have language limitations, he has already made several acquaintances with the locals. Soon after, Sugar, who remains disoriented and isolated in his surroundings, falls and injures his ankle during a routine play, which forces him to sit out several games. One evening, sitting outside on the porch with Anne, Sugar struggles to explain a childhood scar and, when she encourages him to speak in Spanish, he relaxes, and does but is sad to realize that she has not understood him. Encouraged by Anne’s kindness, Sugar kisses her and, unnerved, she bids him goodnight and departs. At the Swing club house a few days later, Sugar is shocked to find Jorge packing, as he has been pulled from the team. Although he is required to return home, Jorge confides that he is going to stay with a cousin in New York City, as there is no employment back in the Dominican Republic. Despondent, Sugar telephones Sofia, who comforts and encourages him. In the locker room the next day, Sugar asks Brad what he will do after baseball and his friend responds that he will return to university and maybe teach. Sugar reveals that he attended school until he was sixteen when he was recruited for baseball. Bored by his restricted activity and resigned to realize that Anne is avoiding him, Sugar, whose hobby is carpentry, fixes one of the Higgins broken kitchen drawers. When he has recovered from his ankle injury, Sugar arrives at the club house to find Brad’s place empty. The coach informs Sugar that the Wisconsin team signed Brad, who left Sugar a farewell gift of a book on Clemente. Sugar also learns that a former Knights’ academy pitcher, Salvador Torres, has arrived to play with the Swing. Uneasy, Sugar is cool to Sal, who later replaces him in the game when the Swing are losing. Over the next several games, Sal’s pitching abilities surpass those of Sugar. One afternoon in frustration, Sugar smashes a water cooler in the locker room, prompting the coach to advise him to learn to control his anger. Feeling pressured before starting the next game, Sugar takes uppers and strikes out five batters in a row. Sugar’s game deteriorates, however, and after a batter in the fifth inning hits a run, Sugar recklessly aims a pitch at the next batter and is immediately ejected by the umpire. When the batter tries to attack Sugar, both teams pour onto the field for a wild fist fight as the dazed Sugar walks off alone. The coach moves Sugar to relief pitcher and counsels him that an athlete’s character is determined by how well he can make a come-back. At the Higgins’ house, a chastened Sugar apologizes to Earl and Helen and cries when Earl hugs him. Later, Sugar finds out that Jorge’s New York phone number has been disconnected. That evening, Sugar solemnly helps Helen clean up after dinner and thanks her for all of her and Earl’s kindness to him. The next day, instead of taking the team bus to the away game, Sugar hides, then takes a public bus to New York City. Arriving in the city a couple of days later, Sugar goes to Yankee Stadium, near the small Spanish-speaking café at which Jorge works. There, the cook Rafael and waitress Reyna tell Sugar that Jorge left two weeks earlier for a chauffeur job, but stops in occasionally to dine. After taking a small room in a dingy hotel, Sugar looks for work at a carpenter shop nearby, but the manager, Osvaldo, tells him that he is not hiring. Returning to the café, Sugar asks Rafael and Rayna for help and becomes a bus boy. When telephoning home, Sugar learns from his distressed mother that the team management is searching for him, but he assures her that he is fine. Upon returning to Osvaldo’s shop a couple of days later, Sugar offers to do any clean-up work for free if he might use some equipment to make his mother a small table. Although initially resistant, Osvaldo warms to Sugar when he hears a little of his story and allows him to use the shop in his spare time. Depressed that Sofia refuses his calls, and by the squalid atmosphere in the hotel, Sugar contacts a Knights’ representative, Frank, who grudgingly agrees to help extend his visa. When Sugar confides in Osvaldo that he abandoned baseball and has no place to go, the shop owner invites him to stay with him and his daughter until he is settled. In a few days, Sugar joyfully reunites with Jorge at the café and ruefully confesses that he left the team before they threw him out. Over the next few weeks, Sugar continues working at the café and at Osvaldo’s shop. He and Reyna begin dating, going out frequently with Jorge and his girlfriend. During a phone call with his mother, Sugar assures her that he will return soon but is saddened to hear that Erica has had to go to work in a factory. His mother relates that nine year-old Luis is readying himself to be the family’s next baseball star. Through Jorge, Sugar joins a neighborhood baseball team, the Bandidos, who play in Robert Clemente Park. Happy to be on the field again, Sugar contentedly accepts his fortune and looks forward to whatever his new life has in store for him. 

Distribution Company: Sony Pictures Classics
Production Company: HBO Films
Journeyman Pictures
Hunting Lane Films
Gowanus Projections
Director: Anna Boden (Dir)
  Ryan Fleck (Dir)
  Mariela Comitini (1st asst dir)
  Juan Zuniga (2d asst dir)
  Jamie Rush (2d asst dir, New York unit)
  Jamie Rush (2d 2d asst dir)
  Nicole Real (2d 2d asst dir, Dominican Republic unit)
  Nadia Tabbara (2d 2d asst dir, New York unit)
Producer: Paul Mezey (Prod)
  Jamie Patricof (Prod)
  Jeremy Kipp Walker (Prod)
  Anna Boden (Exec prod)
Writer: Anna Boden (Wrt)
  Ryan Fleck (Wrt)

Subject Major: Ambition
  Athletes
  Baseball
  Dominican Republic
  Family relationships
  Friendship
  Language and languages
 
Subject Minor: Arizona
  Athletic coaches
  Bars
  Buses
  Carpenters
  Churches
  Diners (Restaurants)
  Drugs
  Fistfights
  Hotels
  Iowa
  New York City
  Parties
  Poverty
  Restaurants
  Sex
  Waitresses
  Wounds and injuries

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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