Monday, April 27, 2009

Baseball dreamin' -- Dominican style

If you've seen "Half Nelson," a searing 2006 drama about a drug-addicted junior high school teacher who befriends one of his students, you know that it's gut-wrenching enough to have earned its star, Ryan Gosling, an Oscar nomination for best actor. When you see "Sugar," the story of a 19-year-old Dominican phenom who's trying to make it in the Big Leagues, you may be surprised to learn that its directors -- Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck -- also brought "Half Nelson" to the screen.

Instead of immersing us in urban grit and drug-induced horror, the directors create a world that touches the impoverished backwaters of the Dominican Republic, a corn-fed community in Iowa and the neighborhoods surrounding Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. And instead of a movie that tears at your insides, you'll find a story that carefully observes a young man's struggle to achieve his dream while adjusting to a new cultural environment.

Boden and Fleck recently visited Denver to talk about "Sugar," which has opened in New York and Los Angeles and which begins its theatrical life in Denver Friday. Here's some of our conversation:

Denerstein: The trappings of this story involve baseball, but "Sugar" isn't exactly a sports movie. What's at the heart of the movie for you two?
Boden: At its core, it's really a coming-of-age story from an immigrant perspective. I don't think this type of immigration story is one that people are used to watching ... Usually, the American dream story is about someone coming from another country to a job in a major city in the U.S. where there's already a large immigrant community. This is the story of someone who hopes to become a baseball superstar, but ends up in this small town in Iowa. Miguel (the 19-year-old main character) is in a more isolating and alienating experience than would ordinarily be the case for someone coming to a new country. On top of that, he's not with his family, and he's still trying to figure out who he is. That's the crux of the story for me.

Denerstein: How did you first become intrigued by this subject?
Fleck: I'm a big baseball fan. (Fleck grew up in Oakland, and roots for the As, but now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.) I knew that there were lots of Dominican players in the Major Leagues (an estimated 15 percent of all Major League players), but I never realized why. Once I realized how big an industry this is down there, I became curious about the hundreds of players who go through this every year, young people you never hear about. (Fleck is referring to the Dominican baseball academies that most big-league teams operate.)

Denerstein: One of the most striking things about "Sugar" is the way it depicts the cultural adjustment that players must make. When Miguel arrives in the U.S., he and his fellow Dominicans are limited when it comes to ordering food in restaurants. Lacking more than rudimentary English skills, they tend to gravitate toward restaurants featuring pictures of food. They eat a lot of pancakes. Is Miguel's experience typical?

Fleck: "Every team is different. They have different amounts of money that they pump into their Latin American operations.* I think that they're pretty savvy about helping players: teaching them how to order food; teaching them computer skills. I think they realize that the more off-the-field skills these guys have, the more they're able to focus on baseball.

Denerstein: Not many of these young men are going to make it to the majors. Are they being exploited by baseball or are they being given a great opportunity?
Boden: Both. ... In a way, these athletes become commodities. That doesn't mean that baseball doesn't provide a lot of opportunity to some kids from very poor backgrounds ... But there's a social cost that we need to keep in mind. Miguel is able to get a little money for his family, but you also have kids dropping out of school at 12 or 13 because baseball seems a more attainable dream than becoming a doctor or lawyer. Some of those guys will never get signed and will never have an education. There are two sides to the coin. It's not out of bad intentions on anyone's part. It's a systemic problem.

Denerstein: Algenis Perez Soto plays Miguel, whose nickname, Sugar, gives the movie its title. Until you found him, Soto never had acted. How did you go about casting him?
Fleck: It was really hard. We went down to the Dominican Republic. We had this guy who would take us around to all these baseball fields. We would roll up, break out a video camera and invite kids from 13 to 24 to interview with us. Anyone who had a spark and who felt comfortable with us, we'd invite back. We'd give them a little scene that they'd prepare before they came in for the second time.
Denerstein: You've said that some of the people who came back for a reading were so unfamiliar with acting that they'd include stage directions and character names in their readings. I guess that didn't really matter.
Boden: We were looking for somebody with quiet confidence, somebody who was very natural in front of the camera. Algenis had a natural charisma. He made you want to watch him even when he wasn't talking.
Denerstein: Where is he now?
Fleck: Massachusetts. He has a girlfriend. He's hoping to say here and act.
Denerstein: I guess there's no equivalent of the baseball academies for aspiring actors.
Fleck: He went to one. (He's referring, of course, to everything Soto went through during the making of "Sugar.")

*Note: A spokesman for the Colorado Rockies told me that the club is well aware of the problems that Dominican youngsters can have when they sign with a big-league club. The Rockies offer assistance that begins when a young player is signed and extends throughout his career. The Rockies have an academy in the Dominican Republic, where stress is put on nutrition, as well as on language skills. Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez -- who speaks English well -- hails from the Dominican Republic, as do a long list of other players, including Manny Ramirez; David Ortiz; and Albert Pujols. For a list of Dominican-born Major Leaguers, click here.

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