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Heroes of the Zeroes: Sugar

by on October 13, 2010
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Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

Rated R

Americans sometimes take baseball for granted as apple pie’s patriotic a la mode or an institutionalized rite of boyhood passage.

But try telling a destitute Central American teen with a century-mark fastball it’s just a game and not something on which to hang every hope.

Young, unhittable and headed to America, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) waves off advice from the former 98-mph fireballer now slinging cell chargers on a corner.

But fans of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” knew 2009’s “Sugar” wouldn’t follow Miguel’s easy ascension to the major leagues. It’s an impartially observant slice-of-life drama about a side of the big-time dream that’s not necessarily dark, just in slight shadow.

Yes, Major League Baseball’s new guard of Dominican dominance gives Miguel a birthright boost; Perez resembles a leaner, younger version of Sammy Sosa. But scouts’ sales pitches and host families’ encouragements obscure a key truth: American professional baseball is not the sport played on Dominican sandlots.

Amiable, able players like Miguel are dime-a-dozen minor leaguers — adjusting to English language and American culture in small Midwestern cities, aware one bad break will ship them home. Being groomed for success doesn’t mean fame’s clothes will fit Miguel, and he realizes mere proficiency isn’t enough for a major payday.

Steroids enter Miguel’s equation, but “Sugar’s” narrative turns feel more generous than obvious — emphasizing baseball’s calming, community ideas over its cult of personality. The gravity of Miguel’s plight stays with you, but so does his eventual peace.