A Cinematic Team on a Field of Broken Dreams

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

One word keeps popping up when you're talking to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Indescribable.

The filmmakers, who in 2006 made a stunning co-directorial debut with the Ryan Gosling vehicle "Half Nelson," and whose sophomore effort, "Sugar," opens in Washington on Friday, just can't be pinned down. Their style, which ranges from the spontaneity of documentary to the grit of neorealism to the visual flourishes of the most bravura classical filmmaking, is at once invisible and bold. Their professional process -- they write and direct all their movies as a team -- entails some delegation of duties (Boden handles the editing), but mostly it's a seamless enterprise in which the technical details of getting a movie made just organically sort themselves out.

And don't even get them started on their personal relationship.

"We're partners," says Fleck, as he and Boden settle into a late breakfast during a recent visit to Washington.

"Ummm . . . " Boden interjects.

"We're very close," Fleck says quickly.

"We describe it as close personal . . . "

Fleck interrupts. "We're always skirting," he admits helplessly.

If much of Boden and Fleck's personal and creative life together can't precisely be described in words, it is clearly working for them. Although a lot of the acclaim that "Half Nelson" deserved was appropriated by that year's cuter indie darling, "Little Miss Sunshine," the movie nonetheless announced that Boden and Fleck possessed intelligence, vision and filmmaking chops. The film, in which Gosling played an idealistic, crack-addicted junior high school teacher who befriends a student (played in a stunning nonprofessional turn by Shareeka Epps), was one of the few first-time films that felt genuinely new, featuring un-stock characters in a story that never took expected twists and turns.

"Half Nelson" wound up earning Gosling an Oscar nomination, and it brought Boden and Fleck to Hollywood's attention. And it turns out, executives really do say things like, "We want to be in the Anna and Ryan business."

"Except it's 'We'd love to be in business with you' -- " says Boden.

" -- usually to our agent -- " Fleck says.

" -- people say that all the time, 'We'd love to be in business with you' -- " says Boden.

"And we never imagined we'd be getting into business with anybody!" says Fleck, laughing.

Boden, 29, and Fleck, 32, began working together in 2002, on the short documentary "Have You Seen This Man?," about New York artist Geoff Lupo. Fleck had just graduated from film school at New York University, and Boden was finishing an undergraduate degree in film studies at Columbia. They had met a couple of years earlier, when Boden took a summer course in film production at NYU. The Lupo film was for a nonfiction filmmaking class, and Boden asked Fleck to help out. "What started out as him holding the microphone turned into him having a lot of opinions and thoughts and suggestions," Boden recalls, "and intelligent ones. So we ended up co-directing."

Boden and Fleck began writing "Sugar" after "Half Nelson" made its debut at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The story follows Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a young baseball player from the Dominican Republic who is recruited to a single-A team in Iowa, embarking on a journey that in most movies would end in the big leagues. Instead of the dream, "Sugar" focuses on much more common self-deceptions and heartbreaks, including the immense pressures young players face from family, friends and teammates. "We never had any intention of making a traditional sports movie," says Fleck. "We always viewed the sports in the film similar to the way boxing works in 'Raging Bull,' [as] a vessel into this character's journey more than being about baseball."

As they did in "Half Nelson," Boden and Fleck once again found a nonprofessional actor to play a crucial role in the film: Algenis Pérez Soto, a Dominican native who plays Sugar with an uncanny combination of shy grace and captivating physical command.

"He's a guy who's living in San Pedro, which is the area where we shot the film," Boden explains. "He had had aspirations to be a baseball player when he was younger, which never happened. When we met him, he had given up that aspiration of playing professionally, but he was playing for fun on the field with his friends."

By the time Boden and Fleck met Pérez Soto, they had talked to hundreds of young men they met in parks and baseball fields in and around San Pedro. "We were basically going around to these fields and asking the guys if they would mind taking a break and talk to us," Boden recalls. "We'd chat with them, learn a little bit about them and see if they had that spark of something. By the time we met Algenis, we'd seen enough guys to pretty much know immediately that he had something special that nobody else had had. He was Number 452."

"Sugar" also features several real-life baseball professionals, including José Rijo, who in February was fired from the Washington Nationals training academy in the Dominican Republic after it came to light that a shortstop recruited in 2006 had forged his name and age. (The training facility is now closed.)

"I really don't know the details of the scandal," says Boden, "but the idea of changing your age in order to get a foot up [is understandable]. It's these guys' only chance of getting out of poverty. If they can have a better opportunity by saying they're a couple of years younger than they actually are, I can empathize with why they'd make that choice, in the same way I can empathize with why somebody would take performance-enhancing drugs. Because it's not just about succeeding in the way [an American] high school basketball player or high school hockey player wants to succeed, just to be the star of the team. It's about survival."

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