Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have transformed some of the most clichéd genres with smarts, non-screechy politics, superb acting, and visual beauty. Half Nelson—their 2006 feature debut about a white middle-class basehead who teaches poor African-American kids—is free of Dangerous Minds–like hooey. Sugar tackles even hoarier terrain: the sports movie and the immigrant story. While certainly diamond-specific, Sugar is less about America's pastime than the fallacies of the American dream. Miguel "Sugar" Santos (the remarkable nonprofessional actor Algenis Perez Soto), a 19-year-old star pitcher in the Dominican Republic, impresses a gringo talent scout with his curveball and is invited to spring training in Phoenix, quickly advancing to a single-A team in Iowa. In the States, Sugar grows increasingly isolated by language and Corn Belt custom. Fleck and Boden capture certain believable heartland specifics: a racist scuffle in a club, misunderstood signals from a church-group-leading teenager, and a fluid, back-of-the-head long take as Sugar ambles through several different neon-nightmare video arcades. It's no spoiler to say that Sugar doesn't lead his team to victory. In their subversion of "inspirational" genres, Boden and Fleck don't want us to be any less moved by the struggles of their protagonists. They simply insist that tidy redemptions have no place in a complicated world.
Perez Soto struggles to adjust.
Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., April 24. Rated R. 114 minutes.