Writing about Half Nelson filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s second feature, Sugar, when it premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, I reckoned that the movie got about as much right about baseball as any movie ever made: the hum of the electric lights in the ozone-heavy summer air; the smack of a knuckle curve as it lands squarely in the catcher’s mitt; the zigzag poetry of the white ball with the red stripes — to the shortstop, to second, to first. Watching the movie again more than a year later, I was reminded that it’s no less perceptive in its depiction of the American immigrant experience. In telling the fictional story of a young Dominican pitcher, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (gifted newcomer Algenis Perez Soto), during his first season on the roster of an MLB farm team, it traces a factual line through several generations of minority immigrant ballplayers who have come to the promised land, hoping to become the next Hiram Bithorn or Roberto Clemente or Sammy Sosa.
To say that Sugar isn’t one of those rags-to-riches stories is far from a plot spoiler. Indeed, for Sugar Santos, “making it” in this country only truly begins after his baseball career comes to a self-imposed end and he sets off on a different but no less arduous American odyssey. For much of the movie, Fleck and Boden are a long way from the gritty Brooklyn verisimilitude of HalfNelson (at least, until we get to the gritty verisimilitude of the Bronx), but Sugar feels every bit as lived-in, whether we’re on the dirt streets of a Dominican Republic shantytown or the hardened clay of a Bridgetown, Iowa, single-A ballpark. And it is just as wise to the cheap, sports drama sentimentality as Half Nelson was to the pitfalls of inspirational-schoolteacher minstrelsy. At the rate they’re going, these prodigiously talented filmmakers may just end up giving “social realism” a good name at the movies again.
L.A. WEEKLY: Why make a movie about baseball — specifically, this aspect of it?
RYAN FLECK: For me, it was the idea of being a fan and feeling familiar with the game for so much of my life, and then learning about this new dimension to it, that every major league team has an academy in the Dominican Republic. That felt very strange to me. Just doing a little bit of research led us to understand that there are hundreds of guys who go through this process every year, and they can’t all make it.
ANNA BODEN: I did not come to it as a baseball fan, so I was more interested in the unique immigrant journey the movie explores. You know, you see a lot of stories about people who come from another country and they join an immigrant community in a major metropolitan area. How about this young guy, who’s coming and ends up in a place that doesn’t have an immigrant community? He’s here on his own, without his family, living in a small town and trying to do his job there, which is not just a behind-the-scenes job; he’s actually performing in front of the entire community in a way, entertaining them.
This is that rare sports movie that isn’t about winning the big game.
FLECK: I think we don’t come at the story as if it’s a sports movie at all. We avoid all of that and all of the conventions that come with that genre, and we approach the sports more like the boxing in Raging Bull. The sport is a vessel [we used to explore] this unique character’s very odd journey.
BODEN: We knew the ending before we started writing the beginning, and the ending, I think, automatically places it outside the context of being a typical genre movie, because he doesn’t win in the way we expect him to win or that a Hollywood movie would have him win. Because we knew that before we started writing the beginning, we knew that it just wasn’t a part of that genre.
In Half Nelson and Sugar, there’s none of the usual Hollywood rush to closure and tidy endings. It feels as though we’re just dropping in on these characters for a few, brief moments, and that they will continue to grow and change long after the end credits have rolled.
BODEN: So many people after seeing both of our movies ask us, “What happens next?” as if we had written that part and we just chose not to put it in the final edit of the movie, or something. But we like the idea that we don’t know what happens next. We can imagine what happens next, but our guess is as good as yours.
Both of these films also manage to address important social issues — race, poverty, immigration — without treating them as heavy-handed thesis statements. They’re there, factoring into the lives of the characters but never defining them, or the narrative.
FLECK: I think as movie fans, we try to put ourselves in the audience, and we as fans, when we’re writing the script and making the movie, try to keep it as eyeroll-proof as possible. We’re fans of those great movies of the ’70s that dealt with that post-Vietnam era but that weren’t directly anti-war films.
BODEN: I also think that neither of us are brazen enough to feel like we have an answer to the problems in the world and the social and political context that’s working on all of us. Most of us feel a little bit overwhelmed by that stuff and don’t have simple answers or simple points to make about it. If we did, we’d want to write essays and be really awesome social-activist speakers and use that talent in that way. But since I don’t think that we have that particular talent, we’re more interested in exploring those issues through character. That’s a way for us to think about those things without having to have fast-and-true answers for them.
In a way, the release of Sugar feels like a litmus test for the health and well-being of the American independent film, which has suffered the demise of companies like Picturehouse and Warner Independent, as well as the theatrical films division of HBO that was responsible for making Sugar.
FLECK: If we wanted to make Sugar today, I don’t think it would be possible. I don’t know who is making these films anymore. I think the money is coming out of Europe and Asia, but I don’t think American companies are making films without movie stars and [with] big chunks of the dialogue in subtitles.
BODEN: This movie kind of dictated that we were going to be working with actors who weren’t known; our next one very well could be something that has well-known actors in it. But I hope we’re able to continue making movies that excite and interest us and that don’t have easy Hollywood endings. I don’t really know. We never know if we’re going to be able to make a next movie.