By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 03, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Fernando Calzada

The writer-director team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck work in a tradition of open-eyed liberal humanism, but they’re also shrewd enough to play off expectations of Hollywood ? heroism. Their first feature, Half Nelson, stoked the audience’s desire to see an inspirational-teacher drama before it turned into the tale of a gifted teacher who was a self-destructive crackhead flake. In their second film, Sugar, they set us up for a classic feel-good sports drama about a nobody who triumphs.

The film follows a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic, Miguel ”Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), who has a baby face and a killer corkscrew curve. Drafted into the American minor leagues, with the hope that he’ll become a star, he journeys to the strange land of Iowa, where he joins a single-A team and moves in with a genial farm family. Boden and Fleck trace Sugar’s story with an almost anthropological eye. The kid barely speaks English (just ordering French toast at a diner is an exotic experience), but he gets plugged into a world of malls and groupies, and Soto plays him with a haunted and captivating thousand-yard stare. Just as we’re getting swept up in his field of dreams (and his loss of innocence), Sugar tosses us a major curveball I won’t reveal. The film’s style is so ”objective” it’s a bit subdued, yet this is a sports drama of total originality, as well as the most authentic inside view of the immigrant experience the movies have given us in quite a while. B+