LondonNet Film Review

He thought his curveball could save his family from poverty. But Iowa isn't exactly the Dominican Republic, and teenage baseballer Miguel Santos finds himself disoriented and discouraged when recruiters hand him the American dream he had always wanted...

Nineteen-year-old Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto), nicknamed Sugar for his 'sweet' pitches, lands a coveted minor-league spot after impressing coaches at his professional baseball academy back home in San Pedro de Macorís. His strikeouts for Iowa team The Swing earn crowds of fans - not least of which are the Higgins, his elderly and religiously enthusiastic host family - and big paycheques to filter back to his mother and sister. Sugar finds company with Jorge Ramirez (Rayniel Rufino), a Dominican academy friend back in the game after nursing a leg injury, and Brad Johnson (Andre Holland), an on-fire second-baseman rising through the leagues straight out of university.

Sugar seems well on his way to the major leagues, but a mid-season arm injury exposes vulnerability in a sport teeming with young talent. Feeling isolated in a country where even a café breakfast menu becomes a language test and a close dance in a club can incite a minor race riot, Sugar slumps lower when Jorge's lingering injury sees him cut from the team. The pitcher's self-doubt peaks when Salvador, another Dominican with another killer arm, overtakes his time on the mound.

Sugar's disorientation and loneliness should resonate with anyone whose long-standing goals have ever outpaced tenacity. In his dead father's absence, he had wanted to pitch his family to a better life. He's left wondering whether it's his dreams that changed, or him, or whether his game simply moves faster than he ever will.

Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden make a commendable effort at elevating the typical "underprivileged youth escapes hardship through sport but is tested in the process" drama. Sugar might not command like 2006's Half Nelson, which Fleck and Boden wrote and respectively directed and produced, but the previous film had Ryan Gosling's acting dexterity and a grittier plot to its credit. Their story of baseball and breaking dreams in Iowan cornfields takes another poignant look at everyday isolation and trampled self-image.

- Jill Hilbrenner