Thursday, October 23, 2008

London Film Festival Day 9 - SUGAR

SUGAR is the latest film from the directors of the quietly brilliant drama HALF NELSON. HALF NELSON starred Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps as a schoolteacher and student forming an unlikely friendship. The twist was that the white teacher wasn't helping out the African-American kid from the deprived inner-city school. Rather, the young girl was helping out the fucked-up junkie teacher. I loved HALF NELSON because it told an unusual story with sensitivity and without judgement. Ryan Boden and Anna Fleck gave the film room to breathe but built slowly to a devestating denouement.

SUGAR shares some qualities with HALF NELSON. Once again, the movie tells an unuaul story that crosses class and race lines and adopts a quiet, patient tone. New-comer Algenis Perez Soto plays a Dominican called Migel "Sugar" Santos. Like so many of his friends, he's desperate to make it out of poverty by playing baseball. Apparently a lot of US teams have training camps in Latin America, where they can train and recruit players at a fraction of the cost of their US college-educated counterparts. Each year a few of these players will make it to wealth, fortune and Major League success. But many will get a season or two in the minors and get injured, or not quite make the grade. What happens to them?

In SUGAR, we see players come to America, struggle with language, get injured, under-perform, and get released. One of Sugar's friends skips out to New York rather than go home. Better to drive a taxi and send home dollars than to return to poverty. Sugar experiences the same trajectory. He moves to the US and plays so well he's catapulted to a "Single-A" local team. He lodges with a baseball-crazy family called the Higgins. But soon he gets injured and when he returns, he's off his game. Life is thin. Everyone's kind but he's basically isolated and frustrated. Rather then wait to be axed, he leaves for New York where he carves a harsher and yet more familial existence with the local ex-pat community. It's a bitter-sweet ending. He won't make it as a baseball player, and he has regrets, but he does have friends and purpose, and he can still send money back to his family.

Once again, the strength of SUGAR lies in the fact that Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden coax a good performance from an unknown actor. Moreover, they continue to avoid melodrama and to show rather than tell. Take the way they treat the issue of race. Sugar is treated well by everyone he comes across - from the baseball manager, to a kindly waitress, to the random people he meets in New York. But we do get little hints of subtle discrimination. When Sugar and his friends go to a nightclub, Sugar borrows a friend's ID. They are convinced that the white bouncer won't care to tell them apart. And then, when Sugar starts dancing with a white girl, the white guys at the bar are clearly unhappy.

The problem with SUGAR is that it lacks the emotional pay-off of HALF NELSON. The slow pace and subtle tone go nowhere. The movie ends on the same even-handed, almost narcoleptic tone as it begins with. All this is fine - I don't need whistles and bangs - but it just felt a little bit, well, thin.

SUGAR played Sundance, Toronto and London 2008. It opens in NY and LA on April 3rd 2009.

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