In the Sundance movie, "Sugar," directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden use baseball as a means to weave a story of coming of age, immigration and the search for the American dream.
"Sugar" focuses on the system that feeds Dominican baseball players into Major League Baseball in the United States. Fleck, an avid baseball fan, was well aware of the Dominicans in the major leagues like Sammy Sosa, the Alou brothers and Pedro Martinez, but never knew what brought them to the United Sates. When he learned that there were training academies set up by every major league team to train and prepare athletes to bring over, he knew there was a story to tell.
"I was fascinated," Fleck said. "I had to hear the rest of the story."
Fleck and Boden are no strangers to the art of sports storytelling. They won the Spirit Award at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago for the film "Half Nelson," which also earned star Ryan Gosling an Academy Award nomination.
The fictional story of Sugar, which is short for Miguel "Sugar" Santos, is unique and poignant one. The young Sugar dreams of baseball lifting himself and his family out of poverty. When he struggles to adjust and his game falters a bit, Sugar begins to reflect on his choices and seeks out a different American dream.
"We could have made the Pedro Martinez story or the Sammy Sosa story, but there are thousands of other Dominicans that come to the U.S. and don't make it to the major leagues," Fleck said.
Fleck said the choice to use the sports genre to tell a story of immigration seemed perfect.
"For us, sports is always a vessel for telling a much more intimate story," Flack said.
The theme of adjusting to new surroundings is another topic that the directors knew would be universal to all audiences.
For the directors putting together a movie with a large Spanish-speaking cast proved to be an interesting and enriching task. Boden speaks Spanish, which helped. But Fleck said that he actually became more familiar with the story line and the background story because of the initial unfamiliarity with the culture.
"It was neat for me not to always know what was being said," said Fleck. "It was not for me to know what was behind the words."
Both directors agreed that the extra research required when working on an unfamiliar topic actually lends to a more thorough storyline than when dealing with a more common story.
The directors spent extensive time in the Dominican Republic researching the culture of both the academies and the villages and became familiar with the life of these young athletes. To find the ideal Sugar character, they auditioned more than 600 actors before discovering Algenis Perez Santos playing softball. They invited the young man, who they felt captured the naïveté and athleticism of Sugar to audition and he got the part.
"I never dreamed of doing something like this," said Santos in a thick accent. " I was nervous. They are my friends now."
In the beginning of the film, a sharp contrast is shown between the structured and manicured fields of the Dominican academies and the simple, pastoral feel of the poor Dominican neighborhoods. Music, family connections and scenic vistas create the sense of comfort and familiarity of Sugar's world.
When Sugar's amazing pitching abilities earn him an invitation to spring training in Arizona, the contrast of the neon lights and commercialism of America flood the screen. Things get even more remote and different for Sugar as the film moves to Bridgeport, Iowa, where the fictional Character has made the lineup for the Single-A Bridgeport Swing. Sugar is "adopted" by a well-meaning and baseball-obsessed older couple who give the film the sharpest change yet. Sugar lives with this host family which leads to exposure to farm life and a rural setting. The family's Midwestern values confuse and sometimes alienate the young Sugar, but he does his best to adjust.
His path towards discovery continues right up until the end of the film.
Fleck said that every baseball player used in the film had played at some level. He said actors were cast on their athleticism, not their acting ability. Former players and real-life coaches were often cast or used in making of the film to increase the authenticity.
As for the other characters that Sugar encounters, Boden and Fleck said that they carefully went through the process of figuring out the different people that a young immigrant player might encounter.
"There's an internal logic to it and these were all characters that were common," Boden said.
The method seems to have worked. Many Dominican players have approached them and told them that they are telling their story.
The directors were pleased with the progression of the film as Sugar makes each transition from dreams to disillusionment to finally finding a sense of place. It may not be the perfect storybook ending in the sense of making it to the major leagues, but it tells the more common story. Boden said that when he finally finds a place that fits, it really is a happy ending.
"It's a story about someone who comes to a new place and is isolated. At the end of the movie he has found a sense of community and home," Boden said.