They’ve All Come to Look for America
Starring: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino
By Robert Patrick
An empty bottle of coke lies knocked over, abandoned, lodged in the dirt and pointing nowhere. Beside the bottle, rows and rows of houses, the paint chipping and bubbling from the incessant beat of the sun, begin to look like rattlesnakes molting their skin. Sugar Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), practicing his fastball, slings his arm over his shoulder, then, marking his target, whips a baseball into his catcher’s glove. Meanwhile, in the distance, a band of children, looking like a school of fish, recklessly bolt across the street. The moment, a perfunctory scene in the life of the young Santos, is just another day for the San Pedro de Macoris pitcher.
Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, in telling the story of a Dominican youth who is desperately clawing to achieve his dreams of baseball stardom, make a film that’s unexpectedly complex and culturally significant. Where most baseball films are content to lackadaisically use the sport for comedy, doling out wacky nuances to its characters with little thought, Sugar’s filmmakers decide to traverse the darker side of the game.. Many questions in baseball, so prevalent and necessary to explore, get lost in the neon sheen of its highlight reels, the cacophonous booms of its stadium announcers, and the omnipresent clouds of kicked up dirt.
What happens to these players when they become lost to the annals of time? Many of these men are prodded like cattle and shipped to the United States, only to have their lives marbled with uncertainty. There is a sense that, through each thoughtful frame of this film, a live wire of unabridged emotion is thrashing wildly. The sullen eyes of Santos, dipping down into abysmal dismay, show an impressionable young man dealing with a newly perforated world view. Because Santos is shipped to America to play minor league baseball, and left largely to himself, a language barrier raps him in the face like a pitcher full of ice water. Menial things such as ordering a plate of French toast becomes a frustrating calamity to Santos.
In one scene, Santos, who is about to find out that he’s been moved to an Iowa baseball team, doesn’t grasp what the letters I-A stand for. Thumbing the bulletin board inquisitively, with his eyes tucked beneath the shadow of his baseball cap, he attempts to decipher what look like hieroglyphics to him – he has no idea where he is about to go. These moments, so saddening to watch, paint a portrait of a coming of age story wrapped in the arms of a baseball premise. Once in Iowa, with the washed out cornfields waving with negligent enthusiasm, you realize that a field of dreams for some is a macabre nightmare for others.
Despite Sugar being lacquered with baseball sequences, the movie is far from a sports chronicle. The film’s examination of communicative disparagement, alone, is worth the price of admission. To see this young man stagger, his cleats clacking against the dugout with despondency in his step, make you think about what choices we make in life, and the adverse reactions they may have at any time.
There are images in this movie that lasted with me for days: Santos’ arm, sheathed in a towel between innings; the plumes of dirt that expel from a catcher’s glove upon impact; the tattered spine of a Roberto Clemente biography, and the reaction of Santos’ face when seeing it. Fleck and Boden, the aforementioned directors, know how to weave imagery in subtle – yet dynamic – ways.
The score of the film, flushed with ambient ticks and distorted chords, feels hallucinatory and becoming of Santos’ rapidly changing lifestyle. A particular sequence, in which a TV on the Radio song blares, feels kinetic and balanced; the meshing of music and film seems surgically put together with artisan detail.
Some viewers may seem taken aback by some of the rudimentary and obligatory baseball inclusions – diving catches and wild pitches are the norm – but the real interest here is seeing the splintering psyche of a very real mentality in baseball. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, watching a man lost in his life, with only a few provisions and a handful of pocket change to guide him, is something we can all designate interest to. To Santos, the reality is that all crowd sounds, no matter how buoyant and convivial, eventually melt together with the sound of a hissing record; he is still coming to terms with himself, and the marred silence of loneliness.