Santi's contradictions -- as typical as they may be -- energize The Polo Kid: An American Prodigy.
Santiago Torres doesn't talk much. Like a lot of 13-year-olds, he's not inclined to explain himself to adults or listen to adults explaining themselves to him. Also like a lot of 13-year-olds, he's not crazy about school and tends to keep to himself. Unlike most kids his age, though, Santi plays polo. And he's very, very good at it.
All this makes Santi both an ideal documentary subject -- repeated scenes show him on his horse, on the pitch, in brilliant, thrilling action, accompanied by a mood-inducing pop song -- and a terrible one. He's actually pretty charming, in his way, but he struggles visibly to answer questions put to him, looking away from the camera, shifting his weight, and mumbling, just a little. According to Mariano Aguerre, one of the world's few polo players with a 10-goal handicap, "Santi is a remarkable kid, one of a kind. His nickname is 'Ice.' You talk to him, he looks at you like, 'Who are you?' We just love the kid."
Santi's contradictions -- as typical as they may be -- energize The Polo Kid: An American Prodigy, now available on iTunes. The narrator and various interview subjects refer repeatedly to Santi's innate skills and youthful promise and the film illustrates with fast-moving scenes of horses galloping and mallets swinging. The youngest player ever selected to compete in a high goal tournament, an "unlikely prodigy from the deserts of California," Santi comes in for frequent, repetitive praise. His instincts are impressive, he "not only looks for the goal to score the goal, he plays great defense" too, observes Aguerre. Coach Roberto Gonzalez asserts, "He doesn’t even have to think about it. He probably will have more skills than anybody I have ever seen. He knows exactly what to do without thinking."
Apart from such generic veneration, Nathaniel McCullagh's documentary tells a couple of other stories. One has to do with the game, specifically, making the case that despite its reputation as a pastime for wealthy classes, polo is a vibrant athletic endeavor. The narrator insists, "The realities of life for these polo kids are a far cry from the sport's playboy image." And so you see Santi and his older brother Miguelito in the barn, attending to their horses. Santi also points out his groom, Chacón. "He's from Guatemala," the boy says as the camera observes the silent older man, his face shadowed and his look somewhat apprehensive. "He takes care of the horses, rides them and stuff when I'm not here," says Santi.
Polo's hierarchy is much like that of any other sport, with certain duties performed by the underclass (the janitors at baseball parks, the crew who carries the gear or pours the Gatorade for NBA players). Still, polo players bear particular burdens: "In the almost feudal system of American polo," notes the narrator, "The boys answer to their patron, Francisco Escobar." The camera hovers near the older man as barks some orders: "He pays the bills and competes alongside them on the field. It's a little bit like the owner of the Yankees installing himself on first base."
Santi and Miguelito's mother Kelita has her own ideas about how the system works. Like her husband Miguel, she's a polo player too, photos indicating their investment in the sport and Miguel's impressive professional career. Now they run a stable where Miguel and the bys train ponies for others, situating them a rung below the rich owners who play. Because her boys have to work, Kelita notes that their experiences and opportunities are different from those of most American players. Kelita says, "Obviously, there's lots of kids out there who have money behind 'em. Some people say 'politics.' I say 'polo-tics.'"
The documentary doesn't detail the obstacles implied by Kelita's phrasing, though it offers a few examples of emotional difficulties for Santi and his brother. For one thing, they play for the same team. But rather than compete with his younger sibling, Miguelito appears to be overprotective (their mother says that because Miguelito is good in school, he'll likely go on, and even become a veterinarian, while she expects Santi, so obsessive about polo, to graduate high school and then turn go pro). If Miguelito feels conflicted over his younger brother's stardom on the field and in their mentors' minds, the film doesn’t report that. Instead, it focused on his efforts to support and look out his brother. "You play your game, forget about your brother" Gonzales advises the older boy. "I'll be in charge of him... Stop seeing him as your brother, he's your teammate."
This familial drama is framed by another, mentioned only briefly at first: Miguel has brain cancer. In his interviews for the film, the father looks weary and tough, proud of his sons (as he says more than once), and encouraged by their rapid development. Throughout the film's second half, as the boys travel with Team USA to Mexico for a tournament, the film keeps concentrated on their efforts on the pitch and their emotional ups and downs as the captain and coach make decisions about whom to play in order to beat the physically powerful team from Canada (the angle here is that the Torres brothers are talented scorers and instinctual players, but not big or strong enough yet to compete with veteran players).
The competition and their father's illness both shape Santi's experience in ways that he's initially unable to articulate. But here again, his stumbling over the right words proves especially expressive. He's like so many kids his age, focused on the path in front of him until he faces a crossroads.