Saturday, February 6, 2010

Dealing with Sports Movie Cliches -- Reflections on "Sugar"

Sports films are very tough to make. There are only so many places you can take them. Some, like Hoosiers (still my favorite) are inspirational. Some deal with race themes, like Remember the Titans. Others go for the comedy -- Bull Durham, Caddyshack. But for every trailblazing sports film, there seems to be a million shitty ones cashing in on the saccharine cliches. For every Slap Shot there's a Miracle, and for every Sandlot there's a Rookie of the Year.

Here are some of the fun cliches of sports films:

1) A down-on-his/her-luck athlete surprises people with their talent.

2) There's always a hater on the team.

3) The washed-up coach gets a second/last chance.

4) The team's racists can always put aside their differences and eventually slap the asses of their "different" teammates when they start winning games.

5) Winning against unbeatable odds, or

6) Losing, but getting a moral victory.

7) An emotional speech by someone (teammate, coach, friend, etc.) inspires to victory.

8) In a movie with black athletes, someone will always get in trouble with the law

9) You can count on the main character picking out his/her loved one in the crowd during the big game.

10) If the main character leaves the team, whether via choice or by injury, but he/she will always return in the end as the redeemed savior.

Sugar, a movie written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, defies these cliches to create one of the most unique and heartwarming sports films I've seen. Some of these cliches are there, but they are used not as defining moments, but as elements of the experience.

The story involves Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a young pitcher in the Dominican Republic looking for his break into the big leagues. Down-on-his-luck athlete? Check. Sugar gets his shot playing for the single-A minor league team for the fictional Kansas City Knights in Bridgeport, Iowa. He joins them, unable to speak much English outside of specific baseball terms and "french toast." But he finds a couple friends on the team, and seems to fit in. Where are the haters, though? Where's the washed up coach? They're no where to be found.

Sugar's experience reveals for us what it's like for a Dominican-born player coming into America's pastime. He becomes a part of a white, middle-American Christian family who give him lodging while he plays. There are ropes to be learned as it relates to going out on the town, falling for the girl-next-door, and following team rules. And there's the most important lesson of all: you do whatever it takes to keep yourself in the game. Does Sugar have what it takes, though? He's talented, but is that enough? This movie is not afraid to ask this question, or to seek answers.

I liked this film mostly because it finds its subject in a situation I don't know anything about. Most baseball movies are about American players. What's odd, though, is that baseball has not been America's pastime for many years now -- it is the sport of Latin America and east Asia. In the real world, it seems the best ball players are latin-born. Why is this? Could be because of the shitty little-league system, the urbanization of America (which has destroyed the number of open fields in which kids can play), or the fact that the steroids scandal has soured Americans to the game. My theory is that Americans have become more and more violent, so a pastoral game like baseball is no where near as interesting as the more aggressive football. But I digress...

Sugar is a great sports movie. It defies cliches and gives us a compelling story of the struggle that is "making it" in the big leagues. This is not The Rookie. Nor is it Major League, or The Natural. As a matter of fact, baseball is not even the real focus of this film -- Sugar is. And that's the way it should be.

DVD case tagline: "Sugar's as sweet as a home run, even though it's about a pitcher."

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