Pint-sized pugilists dream of a triumphant future for themselves and their fatherland in “Sons of Cuba,” a knockout docu about a Cuban boarding school that trains future boxing champs ages 12 and under. Young Brit helmer Andrew Lang’s surefire crowd-pleaser is equal parts coming-of-age tale and sports drama, though its real gut punch comes from its matter-of-fact observations of the wider sociopolitical context. Pic bagged the docu prize at the recent Rome fest and should have no problems cornering further fest attention prior to strong niche play, including Stateside.
Each year at the Havana Boxing Academy, some 25 new recruits, ages 9 to 11, are groomed for success in the ring. As noted onscreen, Cuba has dominated boxing at the Olympics for the past 25 years — in part because it starts putting its potential future stars through a grueling training program before they’ve even entered puberty.
Pic was shot in 2006 with a largely local crew that had extraordinary access to the institution and country. It focuses on the eight-month run-up to Cuba’s national under-12 boxing championships, won the previous year by a rival academy from Matanzas. Cristian “the Old Man” Martinez is the young (“but with an old soul”) star athlete of Havana, but lost that crucial final fight against Matanzas last year. He’s determined not to let that happen again.
Besides Martinez and stern coach Yosvani Bonachea (frequently his replacement dad), two other hopefuls are spotlighted. Santos “the Singer” Urguelles is a young fighter and foodie who lost his mother at an early age, loves songwriting, and has to fight not only his teammates but also the pounds. His teammate, Junior “the Dalmatian” Menendez, is a former ballet dancer who transferred to the academy at age 9 and fears he may be too “compassionate” for boxing.
On top of regular schoolwork, the boys have an intense physical training program that starts each morning at 4 a.m. Daily routine provides plenty of blood, sweat and tears, but the 2006 setting also provides drama: In July, Fidel Castro was hospitalized and his powers were transferred to his brother, Raul.
One of the film’s genuinely shocking moments sees the tiny swaggerers state with utter conviction that they’re ready to fight off a rumored U.S. invasion. Though Lang shows admirable restraint throughout and keeps the focus tightly on his protags, it is in these glimpses of the wider world surrounding the kids that the docu will pack a real wallop for Western auds.
Though only in his 20s, helmer Lang juggles the energetic, if occasionally blurry, camerawork –he lensed much of the pic himself — and punchy sound effects like a well-seasoned pro. The locally flavored score and precision cutting keep things peppy.