(F)ine Arts

I am not, by nature, a competitive person. I can get a little wrapped up in trivia contests, but other than that, I don't much care whether I win games or contests. If handled well and fairly, though, it can be entertaining to watch other people compete. A lot of reality shows bank on this, but sometimes they really fall down on the whole "handled well and fairly" aspect. Documentary films about competitions tend to put more thought into the process, and generally come off a lot better as a result.

When I read the plot summary of First Position (2011), which involves six kids training for the Youth America Grand Prix of ballet dancing, I was immediately on-board. It sounds like the love child of Every Little Step, and Spellbound, both of which I really liked. Unfortunately, this film doesn't come close to reaching the heights either of those two did. It starts well, though. We dutifully follow these dedicated youngsters as they put themselves through physical and emotional hell in order to have a shot at a scholarship or job offer. Ballet dancers have short careers and must begin when they're young, so none of the kids have much of a life beyond dance; it occupies all of their time and thoughts.

Where the film starts to lose me a bit is the realization that these competitors are all so...similar. One of the great things about Spellbound was how kids from all walks of life were represented, and how their approaches to spelling bees were so vastly different. First Position can never quite separate out its competitors to an appreciable degree. The film tries to get around this by featuring kids of different races. White, Latino, Asian, and Black competitors are all featured. There's a girl adopted from Sierra Leone. An immigrant from Colombia. A kid from a military family stationed in Italy. But despite their physical differences, all of their processes are the same. All of their goals are the same. They all have coaches and supportive parents willing to pour money and attention into their child's aspirations. It's heartening to see, but not especially exciting in a movie that's ostensibly about competition.

The dances are all fun to watch, and very impressive, given the ages of the dancers. There's nothing very attention-grabbing or new - Pina really spoiled me on that front - but everyone is clearly very talented. As we reach the end of the movie, though, it once again loses some punch, and once again, it's because the urgency of the competition is lacking. We've been told throughout the film how the competitors have poured years of work, sweat, blood, and tears into just one opportunity to wow a panel of judges, and how few people are rewarded for that effort. So what happens? Everyone wins. Well, not "wins", but not a single featured dancer walks away empty-handed. Everyone gets recognized in some way, be it with a medal, a job offer, or a scholarship.

If this were a documentary about the stress that children have to go through in order to make it as a ballet dancer, I'd be thrilled that all of the subjects come out ahead. I'm glad that good things are happening for them. But this film is billed as a competition, and if you're going to market your film like that, not everyone can get a blue ribbon and a hearty handshake. First Position won all sorts of festival prizes and is generally regarded as a real crowd-pleaser. Crowd-pleaser it may be, but I'm afraid I can't be as effusive. This is the Hallmark card of documentaries - it's capable of being cheerful and sentimental, but warm fuzzies are pretty much all it has to offer.

First Position: C+


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