Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- The immigrant experience has been seen many times on film before but rarely with the authenticity, wit and intelligence of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Sugar."

The story of an aspiring young baseball player in the Dominican Republic, the film is more than a baseball story, but it will be a real delight for fans of the game. HBO should be able to land a smart indie distributor, as it did for the similarly themed "Maria Full of Grace," that can tap the film's huge appeal to the Latino market.

Several of the biggest stars in baseball -- Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz -- have come from the tiny Caribbean island of the Dominican Republic, where every major league team operates a baseball academy for discovering promising prospects. But the ones who make it to the big leagues, or even have a successful minor league career in the States, is a very small percentage. "Sugar" is the story of a talented pitcher who doesn't make it all the way but learns some important life lessons along the way.

Boden and Fleck, who brought a similar sense of reality to their debut film "Half Nelson," recruited mostly ballplayers who could act, not the other way around. For their hero, Miguel "Sugar" Soto, they discovered Algenis Perez Soto on a baseball diamond in the Dominican Republic. With his heavy-lidded, almost brooding presence, he is one of those amateurs whose naturalness allows him to cut to the heart of his character.

Playing baseball is the ticket out of poverty for many boys in the Dominican, and Sugar is no exception. Trained from an early age, and with the hopes of his family riding on almost every pitch, he bears the weight of enormous expectations. His American dream is buying a Cadillac he can drive on the water.

He does well at the academy and is invited to spring training in Arizona, where the culture shock really sets in. Language is the big barrier, sometimes humorous, as when Sugar orders the same food every day (French toast), and sometimes painful, when he can't express himself.

He gives an impressive performance at spring training, and the next stop is a minor league team in Bridgewater, Iowa. No place could be further from the street life and poverty of the Dominican, and the adjustment is hard, even with the help of an elderly couple (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull) who take him in. While the filmmakers don't whitewash Sugar and his teammates, they clearly made a choice to downplay any sexual shenanigans that might go on among young athletes with raging hormones in a foreign country.

Sugar pitches effectively at first, but with the departure of Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), his best friend on the team, a nagging injury and rejection by a pretty white girl (Ellary Porterfield) he has a crush on, he falls into a black hole. Unable to take the loneliness and isolation anymore, he hops on a bus to New York to try to find himself.

New York can be a hard place, too, but eventually he prevails on the kindness of strangers, especially a good-hearted carpenter (Jaime Tirelli), and he eventually meets up with Jorge and starts to create a new life for himself. When he starts playing baseball with a bunch of Latino guys, all of whom have been through the same flirtation with professional ball, the game becomes fun again.

The filmmakers, aided by cinematographer Andrij Parekh and composer Michael Brook, do a fine job capturing the different rhythms of Sugar's experience: the bright colors and sounds of the Dominican, the subdued palette of Iowa and the bustling life of New York. Acting as her own editor, Boden uses crisp cutting and a keen eye to tell the story visually. Everything from the performances to the production design contributes to capturing what life must really be like for these kids.

As much as you root for Sugar to succeed, Boden and Fleck resist the temptation to give the film a Hollywood ending. What happens is more real, and Sugar gains something more important -- he grows up.

HBO Films
A Journeyman Pictures/Hunting Lane Films production in association with Gowanus Projections
Directors-screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Producers: Paul Mezey, Jamie Patricof, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Executive producer: Anna Boden
Director of cinematography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Elizabeth Mickle
Music: Michael Brook
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editor: Anna Boden
Miguel "Sugar" Santos: Algenis Perez Soto
Jorge Ramirez: Rayniel Rufino
Brad Johnson: Andre Holland
Stu Sutton: Michael Gaston
Osvaldo: Jaime Tirelli
Helen Higgins: Ann Whitney
Earl Higgins: Richard Bull
Anne Higgins: Ellary Porterfield
Reyna: Alina Vargas
Running time -- 117 minutes
No MPAA rating