At its centre is conflicted yet cocky 19-year-old Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos (newcomer Algenis Perez Soto), an ace baseball pitcher from the Dominican Republic who is scouted by a minor league team in Iowa. While the tale of Sugar’s swift rise up the ranks is an engaging one, Boden and Fleck are more interested in building on the subtle textures and ambient moodscapes that surround their hero. The machismo, bluster and sentimentality found in more Ron Shelton-like fare is shelved in favour of fashioning a moving and frank snapshot of the immigrant experience in America.
Soto’s wistful, unselfconscious central performance keeps us rooting for him throughout, a feat made doubly impressive by the fact that the directors have ditched the far-fetched romantic inclinations of ‘Half Nelson’ in favour of tougher, leaner characterisations. On one level, the film works as a dispassionate essay on the heartlessness of commercialism and its rampant exploitation of developing populations, but it’s equally an account of Sugar’s journey to emotional and spiritual maturity. Here is a young man who is only able to put his desires and dreams into perspective when he knows what it’s like to have been swallowed up by the beast of big business.