The Spanish Element: Don’t Let Me Drown, a film by Cruz Angeles; and Sugar, a film by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

By Daniel Garrett

Don’t Let Me Drown, a film by Cruz Angeles
A Parts and Labor and Rollin’ Deep Production/Image Entertainment/Sundance, 2008)

Sugar, a film by Anna Boden and Ryan Flex
(Journeyman Pictures and Hunting Lane Films/Gowanus/HBO and Sony, 2008)

Don’t Let Me Drown is a love letter to New York, but it is a tough love letter: it features characters whose language and style are sometimes abrasive and whose lives are difficult; and the affection and beauty and sense that emerge occur in fleeting moments, sometimes appreciated, sometimes misunderstood, sometimes dismissed. It is one of the films made after the attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and like several others—I’m thinking of The Great New Wonderful and Lions for Lambs and Remember Me—its focus on intimate situations allows us to glimpse something significant. It is possible, and ironic, that a larger vision would have made genuine insight less likely. In Don’t Let Me Drown, there is anger, grief, and worry in the wake of the devastating attack, but in the Brooklyn lives we see, that attack is one more aspect of trouble for working ethnics, a Mexican family with a high school student, Lalo, who is friends with a Dominican Republic student, Jon, whose cousin Stefanie moves nearby after her sister dies in the World Trade Center. The Mexican family of four, with three working adults, worry about paying the rent, and the Dominican family has great tension between the father and mother, whose arguments contain disrespectful, frightening, and vulgar rage. (The brown-skinned, long-haired Stefanie, who wears tight jeans well and whom the intelligent and sweet Lalo becomes infatuated with, has inherited—or imitates—the corrosive and loud hair-trigger temper of her parents.) It is all believable, and while sometimes bruising, the film—brave, discomforting, funny, sad, street-smart, truthful, unique—is beautiful too.

Don’t Let Me Drown, written by its director Cruz Angeles with Maria Topete, begins with a group of Spanish boys, one of them Mexican, and several of them Puerto Ricans, boys riding their bicycles in Brooklyn, until one of them, the Mexican boy Lalo, has a flat tire. The boys stop and talk, and their raucous talk is full of casual cursing and mutual insults and slang (“Damn, son” and “What’s up?”). The mockery, which must contain some affection, as the boys spend much time together, could be a sign of intimacy, an internalization of the society’s contempt, or a repudiation of sensitivity, or a balance of all of these and more. That mockery can be discomforting—to an individual boy, and to a sensitive film viewer. When Lalo is home, in the living room trying to fix his bicycle tire, he watches some of the television footage of people in downtown Manhattan interviewed about the World Trade Center: the Washington Square Park arch is seen and in the distance behind it is smoke (and it reminds me of sitting in Washington Square Park in the weeks after the airplanes crashed into the towers, and smelling the strange, thick air when the wind shifted). Lalo’s mother reprimands him for dirtying the living room with his attempt to repair the bike; and she sits, worried about money, and the family’s ability to pay the rent. Lalo’s mother asks her brother, Lalo’s uncle, if he can kick in extra money to help; and Lalo’s father Ramon—who has been working clean-up at the World Trade Center—admits that he has not been paid yet. Lalo’s father Ramon’s shoes contain ashes; and he arrives at the City Hall subway stop on another day, and walks to work at the demolished World Trade Center, and there he sees a fireman spitting up black gunk—swallowed ash?—into a sink. The men do not have proper protective gear. Ramon will find, subsequently, a piece of jewelry, a ring, there in the dusty debris, a ring his wife wants him to sell, but he will return it and another man get the credit and gratitude for the find and return. Ramon suffers a nosebleed too, a symptom. Lalo’s young uncle complains about the pervasion of World Trade Center news coverage, disproportionate in light of the ongoing suffering and death of poor people around the world. Of course, one is seen as an event and the other is seen as a condition: one is a report of the new, and one is life as it always is.

Lalo borrows his young messenger uncle’s bike to go to a birthday party for Lalo’s Dominican friend Jon, for which Lalo’s mother has prepared a gift (T-shirt, socks), wrapped in Christmas paper, a gift and paper Lalo finds appalling (his mother is practical, and funny about it). There is a fight in the park where the party is when Lalo arrives, and there Lalo sees Stefanie, Jon’s cousin, a Dominican girl about Lalo’s age, for the first time. To Stefanie, Lalo repeats his uncle’s complaint about reportage of the Manhattan trade center attack, a complaint that offends Stefanie, as her sister died there. Stefanie’s parents, as well, disagree about how to deal with the sister’s death (her mother complains that her father will not cry); and, later at home, Stefanie’s father shoves cake into the mother’s face. Stefanie’s father in time will admit that this was wrong, and that he has been tormented by his daughter’s death; and, confessing he cannot stop thinking about his dead daughter and his guilt that he could not protect her, he cries. (The family watches the deceased sister’s graduation video, a scene of both pride and sadness; they are unified, briefly, in grief.) Meanwhile, Lalo’s mother has her son and her heavy metal and punk music-loving brother help her to prepare food to sell on the street, with the uncle teasing Lalo about acting like a white boy and also about not having a girlfriend, which could be heard as outspoken fears regarding ethnicity and sexuality. It may be predictable that minorities—whose identities are suspect—tend to police their own, casually and continuously but sometimes viciously; and the policing is not without contradiction—as in the white rock music-loving man accusing his rap-liking nephew of being like a white boy.

Don’t Let Me Drown, directed by Cruz Angeles with Chad Davidson as cinematographer and Andrew Hafitz as film editor, is a very good film: it is engaging, and it convinces; it offers images of surprising beauty; and it has value for presenting people we do not often see in film, nor understand very well when we see them on the street walking next to us. It can be very moving to see Edward Joshua Bonilla as Lalo on his bike riding through the city, looking and thinking and seeing views of the city that the inattentive miss. He is an ordinary boy but there is something rare beginning to grow in him. He is trying to understand his own experience and trying to find his way in the world—and he wants to have fun: speculation and worry are mixed with amusement and hope.

The film was inspired by its director’s comparing the Manhattan atmosphere after September 11, 2001 to the atmosphere in certain neighborhoods when violent gangs and drugs ruled the streets: a time of fear and paranoia, when for the young friendship and love were the only escapes, a time that he and his co-writer Maria Topete recalled. She had grown up in East Oakland; and Cruz Angeles, born in Mexico City, had grown up in South Central Los Angeles, before studying film at Berkeley and New York University. He has cited as directors he admires Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, and Won Kar-Wai, as well as Vittoria De Sica, Francois Truffaut, Luis Bunuel, Satyajit Ray, and Charles Burnett (IndieWire, January 13, 2009).

When Lalo visits Jon and his cousin Stefanie, she embarrasses and teases Lalo; and subsequently she does not believe Lalo when he alerts her to something amiss about her own clothing—which, after she pulls an attitude (all loud and ghetto and stupid) requires her to go back home and change her clothes. Surprisingly, she recognizes how cold the weather is and invites him in to wait inside; and in Stefanie’s family apartment Lalo sees a family photograph, and thinks her father looks mean, ready to fight; and then, Lalo kisses Stefanie and she says she does not want a boyfriend, but they are seen leaving the apartment together, a fact that gives one of her father’s friends the wrong idea (which is to say, an idea about sex). Despite Stefanie’s demurral their slowly-evolving romance has begun (Lalo is a nice boy and Stefanie a reluctant girl, but others assume they are much faster than they are in pursuing romance and sex). Lalo treats Stefanie with consideration; and, in friendship, she agrees to go with Lalo on a double-date with Jon and the girl Jon likes: they go to a fairground with roller-coaster and bumper cars and take a booth photograph that ends with a kiss between Lalo and Stefanie. They sit on a beach, looking out at the water, and Stefanie admits to Lalo that she, having almost drowned, is afraid of the water. They have a wonderful time together.

The film is, among other things, a love story, with Lalo as Romeo and Stefanie as Juliet, but the circumstances are such that we do not recognize that immediately. There is so much noise and trouble the characters themselves may not recognize an emerging tenderness. Stefanie does become more attractive, more joyous, as the film develops, but I am not sure that I ever accepted her fundamental and recurrently vivid attitude—suspicious, wary, withdrawn, and vituperative. I do not know what the new young actress who plays her, Gleendilys Inoa, is like, but she may have given too good a performance: she reminded me of girls I have heard, seen, and found repellent. (Style or psychology?) Stefanie may be a girl whose world has been so combative, and so unworthy of trust, that she is almost always at war. (The actress Gleendilys Inoa was quoted as saying to reporter Ana Maria Toro in the July 21, 2009 New York Daily News, “I want to take on as many roles as possible that do not connect to me whatsoever,” when discussing Don’t Let Me Drown, and Ricardo Sean Thompson’s A Kiss of Chaos, a film in which she plays a prostitute.) Lalo, like the actor playing him, E.J. Bonilla, is a real find, a gem, a prince yet to be crowned, and Stefanie, reluctantly, begins to realize that, but that does not mean that everything will be flowers and candy and shared sunsets. When Lalo returns home and his mother finds the photograph of Lalo and Stefanie, his mother is angry, asking, “Who’s that big-lipped black girl?” Lalo calls her on her racism, before his mother insists that her brother, Lalo’s uncle, have a talk about sex with him: Lalo’s mother wants him to know about contraception, and her brother wants to talk to Lalo about pleasing a woman in bed.

Stefanie’s father hears of her hanging out with a boy and he too is angry; and Stefanie tries to distance herself from Lalo, saying “You’re not even my type,” which Lalo finds suspect and offensive. Lalo makes Stefanie jealous with another girl. When Stefanie’s father sees Lalo and Stefanie together he whips Lalo with a belt; and, after leaving Lalo on the sidewalk, Stefanie on the ride home tells her father about his own middle-age friend coming on to her. (The danger was not with Lalo—it was closer to home; and Stefanie’s experience was such that she recognized it immediately, and though hurt by it she was willing to keep the inappropriate attention a secret from her father until his attack on Lalo.) Stefanie apologizes to Lalo for her father’s behavior; and, in Brooklyn, they take a bike ride to a place where they can sit near the river and look over the water, to see Manhattan: Stefanie, who fears the water, trusts Lalo enough to do that.

In Don’t Let Me Drown, an immigrant Mexican family struggles to survive, honestly, simply, without expecting applause for it—possibly without even expecting respect for it. Yet, the mother looks down on Dominicans, something that suggests every group finds a way to feel superior, able to associate questionable or bad values (dishonesty, ignorance, sexual immorality, violence) with another group. The Dominican family is just as committed to sexual morality and upward mobility, but the Mexican mother does not know that. The film allows us a perspective the characters within it do not have, and maybe cannot have, their lives full of struggle and stress as they are. There is a Dominican family in Sugar too. Before seeing the film Sugar, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, it says something about the conventions and clichés of American culture that one expects a story about a young immigrant’s baseball career to be about assimilation, love, and winning, about public success, but the film Sugar, which tracks the short career of a talented Dominican ballplayer who comes to America, is about disappointment and personal compromise. In the Dominican Republic, boys attend baseball camps, hoping that their bodies and baseball skill will lead them out of obscurity and poverty and into recognition and wealth. Coaches and scouts monitor them, making recommendations to American teams; and the doors of opportunity open, gaining the boys a vision of a life they want. Yet it is a precarious life: they are given a place to stay, and support, a second home, as long as they go on being promising—winning. It is then easy for a confident young man to become insecure, and insecurity is like a tremor beneath one’s skill.

Algenis Perez Soto plays Miguel Santos, nicknamed Sugar, one of the boys in a Dominican baseball camp: they are trained in baseball and taught the most rudimentary English—baseball terms and enough conservation to understand the commands and corrections of a coach. Their bodies and playing skill are important, nothing else (inevitably, I thought of both prostitutes and slaves). Miguel Santos has an interest in carpentry, but that would not make enough money to raise himself and his family out of poverty—and almost the first words out of the mouths of his relatives are about whether he has received an invitation to America. When Miguel Santos gets to America, Sugar hardly understands anything being asked or told him (he has French toast in a restaurant with a friend, and then regularly orders French toast, not knowing how to order anything else). A collegiate black American ballplayer befriends Sugar and introduces him to Roberto Clemente and the music band TV on the Radio. A white farm family takes the ball-playing Sugar in; and they are ball-crazy, friendly while he wins, and cold when he does not. (He begins to understand the limits of the people—such as white girls who smile with curiosity and welcome, with no intention of going farther, and their white male friends who watch and act jealously.) Just have fun—it’s only a game: these words are both true and false. When Miguel Santos’s skill becomes less and less certain, he can see failure in his future, and leaves the team before he is pushed out—and he goes to New York to find a friend who went there; and there Sugar finds a restaurant job, a woodworking shop, and a few friends.

I am not a sports fan, and began to watch Sugar with trepidation, but Sugar presents a story with broad implications—it is about how rare hope remains in some lives, how passionately hope is pursued, how a family and community can come to depend on one boy, one young man, and what happens when one realizes that hope is not certainty. How can we pretend as if everyone has an equal chance in life? There is a willful forgetting involved in the sustaining of many of our trumpeted principles; and Sugar is an act of sympathetic remembrance. Both Don’t Let Me Drown and Sugar are immigrant stories, humble and profoundly American stories.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett wrote comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and politics, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.