Fernando Calzada/Sony Pictures Classics
Sugar co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (with actor Algenis Perez Soto) previously wrote and directed Half Nelson.
Sugar co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (with actor Algenis Perez Soto) previously wrote and directed Half Nelson. Fernando Calzada/Sony Pictures Classics
Denton Hanna/Sony Pictures Classics
Perez Soto (left) plays Miguel 'Sugar' Santos, a Dominican pitcher who makes it to the American minor leagues.
Perez Soto (left) plays Miguel 'Sugar' Santos, a Dominican pitcher who makes it to the American minor leagues. Denton Hanna/Sony Pictures Classics
If you're a baseball hopeful in the Dominican Republic — and you have talent and luck — you'd be hoping to make it to a baseball academy on the island. All but one of the Major League Baseball teams have academies there, compounds where young Dominicans compete and train in hopes of making it in the majors.
That world of baseball hopefuls captivated filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and it's there that they set their new feature film Sugar.
Fleck tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block that the farm system creates tremendous pressures for players.
"First of all, they're very poor, so there's a lot of pressure from their families to succeed," he says. "And not just to succeed as a baseball player and feel pride for that, but to pull their families out of poverty."
The plot of the film follows 19-year-old pitching prospect Miguel Santos — known as "Sugar" — out of the Dominican farm system and to small-town Iowa, where he pitches for the minor league Bridgetown Swing.
Along the way, he struggles to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings, to a new language and to fair-weather fans like his sponsor family, an elderly farm couple named Helen and Earl Higgins.
The Higginses love baseball, Boden says, "but if the players stop performing, they'll turn on them in an instant."
When Sugar's pitching falters, he begins to doubt the dream of success that he and his family have built, and it's the young man's journey back to a meaningful community that carries the film forward.
"We had no interest in making a traditional sports movie," Fleck says. "We didn't want it to tell the story of the guy who makes it and becomes a millionaire."