Two of the year’s best films have come out within the last two weeks, but there’s a sad truth at hand—–you’ve either never heard of them, or have little to no interest in seeing either one. To your own detriment, because both Sugar and Sin Nombre (hitting DVD shops recently) represent the strongest of what independent films have to offer, and should presently rest high on any movie-head’s tops list. The former is a sports film with a deeper message, the latter a gang-banger thriller with a loudly-beating heart and soft-spoken intelligence. Both were released in the first quarter of 2009 in limited reach, and both unfortunately came and went without any attention paid outside of the credibility-pushing online film-writing world. Which is where I initially gained interest from, but wasn’t able to catch either in theaters for unnecessary-to-disclose reasons. [Continued after the jump]
Now that the films are available on DVD, I’ve fixed that glitch. What I hadn’t realized until after seeing both within the same week was that Sugar and Sin Nombre are kindred spirits, approaching the issue of immigration in different yet equally powerful ways. In Sugar, writing/directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (building buzz once again after 2006’s critically-embraced Half Nelson) use major league baseball as a gateway into the barriers of language and culture. Stellar newcomer Algenis Perez Soto plays “Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos,” a hard-throwing pitcher who runs the local baseball scene in his native San Pedro, Dominican Republic. Like an endless roster of real-life MLB stars (such as New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano), Sugar’s successes in the DR translate to American interest, and he’s invited along with several teammates to try out for the a Single-A team under the fictional Kansas City Swing.
Sugar is so memorable because the script doesn’t allow audience expectation to have its day; there’s a twist of sorts about two-thirds of the way in that alters the film’s tone drastically, relying less on baseball and more on the everyday struggles of immigrants hoping to start anew in America, only to be met with closed doors and disappearing finances. From the moment he steps foot on stateside soil, Sugar feels like a lonely needle in a daunting Midwestern haystack. The simple act of ordering breakfast turns into an ego-crushing event—–all he knows how to say in English, AM-ordering-wise, is “French toast,” but after repeated servings of that he’s ready to make the switch to eggs; but he doesn’t know the difference between scrambled or sunnyside-up, and he grows frustrated at the waitress’s redundant questioning. Lame old French toast it is, yet again. It’s a quick, quiet scene, but it’s as poignant as any other moment in Sugar.
Not only is Sugar one of the most meaningful sports films in recent memory, it’s one of the most entertaining. (ESPN, wake the fuck up and broadcast this film now.) Sugar starts off as an arrogant stereotype, the fireballer who thinks he could strike out Albert Pujols with ease; all of his teammates and competition play underneath his skills. So when his playing fields are then found in the unimpressed American leagues, watching his demeanor slowly disintegrate is incredibly fascinating. He becomes disposable, no longer the irreplaceable MVP, and it works scarring wonders on his attitude. As far as his coaches are concerned, there’s dozens more talented Dominican ballplayers just waiting to jack his spot; Sugar is nothing more than a fastball and a developing knuckle-curve in their eyes.
If those same coaches were to feel the discomfort and fish-out-of-water mental destruction that’s a painful reality in Sugar’s life, they’d hopefully change their game. But if Sugar’s heartache didn’t do the trick, then the Border Patrol horrors experienced by the characters in Sin Nombre just might. Written and directed by the previously-unknown Cary Fukunaga, Sin Nombre follows the paths of two socially-differing youngsters—–“Willy/El Casper” (played by Edgar Flores) is a gang member with a heart of gold who avenges the murder of his girlfriend by killing one of his gang’s superiors, then forced to hide out on a train heading to the border, filled with immigrants seeking American acceptance; one of whom is “Sayra” (Paulina Gaitan), a Mexican teenager leaving her home due to non-existent career and life-flourishing opportunities. On the train, Willy and Sayra forge a genuinely touching friendship, one thankfully not marred in Fukunaga’s script by any lazy romantic hiccups. Just the holding of hands and providing of shoulders to lean upon.
Sin Nombre works damn well as a lo-fi thriller, morphing gradually into a traditional chase-the-vigilante gangster film. Yet, it’s ultimately anything but traditional. For starters, the film is starkly brutal at times, kicking the fearless tone off with a 13-second beatdown of a little boy that’s bruising to sit through as a mere fourth-wall-separated spectator. An almost-rape scene devolves into a quick and gut-punching accidental murder, played with such a lack of set-up that the sequence’s tragic conclusion induces emotional whiplash. Fukunaga unabashedly shows his no-holds-barred penchant during the resolution of the film’s vigilante plot. The relationship between Willy and Sayra is full of great chemistry and warm-fuzzy exchanges, and in a conventional film would’ve sent them off happily ever after under an American sun; Fukunaga doesn’t play that shit, however. The downpouring of gun-spray that draws their budding connection to a bloody close dispatches their tenderness in unrestricted vigor. The naturally-drooping and pained look on Flores’/Willy’s face unsuccessfully flirts with a bottom-line reason to smile, and his teardrops tattoos are scratched off prematurely. For him, that is; considering what he’s done for Sayra, he has cause for satisfaction even in his darkest hour.
Sin Nombre ends just as it begins—–sentimental but still ballsy as all hell.
The immigration ideas delivered in Sin Nombre take a stylistic backseat to the surface-level thrills, but only a blind viewer could miss them. Confined to a dirty train that’s heading nowhere in particular fast, Sayra and her fellow American-dreamers live in terrifying uncertainty. At any moment, young ruffians can hop aboard and rob at gunpoint; unsympathetic onlookers can hurl stones at them and spit harsh insults. They’re trying—-through adversity and agony—-to get where Miguel “Sugar” Santos is, not even caring that the Sugars of the states continue to endure societal limitations.
These two shouldn’t-be-missed films could exist on a quasi-Grindhouse double bill—–Sin Nombre first, to establish the initial nightmare, followed by Sugar, meant to show that our country’s grass isn’t that much greener than the fungi growing next to the USA-bound travelers sleeping on that rusty, grungy train.