The makers of Half Nelson remain on their game…

Promising rookie hits debut homer, the majors come a-courting.

It’s a familiar story… but writer/ directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck know a cornball deal when they see one. After Half Nelson bagged Ryan Gosling an Oscar nom, they’d be forgiven for taking Hollywood dollar. Instead, follow-up Sugar throws a curveball: a largely Spanish-language baseball movie with a non-professional lead.

Too esoteric for British tastes? Don’t worry, the game is immaterial to this subtle indictment of the globalised sporting industry. Goal! it isn’t. The more likely inspiration is classic basketball doc Hoop Dreams, whose clear-sighted humanism this shares.

‘Sugar’ is Dominican pitcher Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), who dreams of being fast-tracked to Yankee Stadium from his dustbowl village’s US-owned academy. First, however, he must serve a season’s apprenticeship in a Minor League Iowa backwater.

Boden and Fleck’s faux-verité style artfully conceals the accuracy of their pitching: an entire system is getting a strike out here. It may seem absurd that Sugar’s only English is ball game clichés, but why would his club redress that? Should Sugar get injured or buckle under the pressure, he’s replaced.

It might have been mawkish – but the film rests on a brilliantly sustained ambiguity. Is Sugar struggling because the bases are loaded, or from an idealistic refusal to play them? As the film’s formula-busting final act suggests, Sugar – like Boden and Fleck themselves – prefers being his own boss.

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