A career in ballet means a lifelong commitment, both from those youngsters driven – or insane – enough to shoulder the tough challenges it entails, and from their (sometimes obsessive) parents as well. First Position, easy to digest and curiously nondescript, tackles this subject with a performer's awe-inspiring discipline, but it bears none of the flair that separates the merely competent from the truly gifted.
The documentary, which continues an exclusive run at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, follows six underage hopefuls vying for top awards at the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix, the world's largest international student dance competition. It not only draws over 5,000 dancers aged 9 through 19; more importantly, it also brings recruiters from the world's most renowned dance institutions. How does director Bess Kargman prevent her crisply paced film from devolving into a PSA for the tournament? By focusing on the kids' journeys and the toll they take, not only on them but on their equally dedicated moms and dads.
Just look at the sacrifices 11-year-old Aran's military dad makes for him. Ordered to be station in Italy, the precocious hoofer's father makes sure to be placed in a base located not too far from a city where his son can have access to the training he needs to enter Youth America. Back on U.S. soil, ten-year-old J.J. and his older sister Miko receive moral support, not just from their Russian trainer Viktor, but from their Japanese mom, who appears to be even more determined to win big than her children are. (Can you say Backstage Mom Syndrome?) Over in the Midwest, privileged princess Rebecca refuses to prevent her training from having a social life with her mall-dwelling girlfriends. A brief look at the pink overkill in her bedroom explains why she's nicknamed Barbie at school. Accurately, though somewhat unfairly, Kargman turns the entitled teen into the film's comic relief, although when you see her stepping out of Tiffany's showing off a just-purchased tiara charm for her bracelet, it's hard to balk at the director's slanted depiction.
The two more interesting participants are the ones with the most intriguing backstories. Michaela, a 14-year-old survivor of Sierra Leone's civil war, endured one atrocity after another following her parents' violent death and her ordeal at the orphanage from where she was adopted by a Jewish middle-aged American couple. Michaela, who recently performed a routine on “Dancing with the Stars,” is aware that dark-skinned dancers are often perceived as lacking the delicacy and grace of their Anglo counterparts, and she tries to disprove that notion with admirable conviction. The most captivating subject in First Position, though, is by far South American charmer Joan Sebastian. It's clear from our first glimpse of this gifted wunderkind that he's a star, and a trip back home to visit the working-class family he left behind shows that a great talent can truly come from anywhere. The athletic heartthrob is dead set on becoming the first Colombian member of London's Royal Academy of Dance, and watching him glide effortlessly across the screen, you just know it's not a matter of “if,” but of “when.”
Kargman's focus on her dancers' personal lives comes at the expense of a potential exploration of Youth America's backstage politics, the kind of added dimension that would have prevented her film from coming across as a slightly more perceptive variation on reality TV. She also fails to take full advantage of the built-in suspense surrounding the outcome of the competition, something that the National Spelling Bee documentary Spellbound and the Chorus Line chronicle Every Little Step, movies that share many similarities with First Position, pulled off splendidly. What Kargman's nonfiction feature does possess in spades is rigor. She takes her cameras inside these children's homes and delivers arresting portraits of ordinary families with extraordinary dreams. Her film doesn't quite earn a standing ovation, but it does warrant heartfelt applause.