★ ★ ★
Directed by Bess Kargman.
As pure pleasure-center stimulation, Bess Kargman's First Position, a documentary about a handful of young ballet dancers and the lengths they go to compete in the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix competition, checks off the necessary criteria. The film presents us with a racially diverse assortment of young children, ascetic-like levels of devotion to their already physically and emotionally taxing craft and a make-or-break (literally: ballet injuries can end a career before it starts) competition amongst their peers that doubles as visual and emotional payoff for the viewer. But the film lacks the depth that could allow it to transcend the potentially limited appeal of its subject matter.
We hear 11-year-old Aran's father comment on how many boys his son's age are victims of ridicule and stereotyping once they cop to being into ballet, but in the wake of the documentary Bully, those schoolyard implications warrant more than cursory glossing over. We watch siblings Miko and Jules exchange some eating disorder-based barbs, but we're shown nothing of the very real dietary struggles those deeply devoted to ballet can and will face, none of which seem to plague Kargman's subjects. It's a film of wasted potential, in some ways: even when another child wins accolades over one of our protagonists and the appropriate Pavlovian piano score comes in, I couldn't help but silently cheer the victor, knowing how hard these kids worked just to set foot backstage of the YAGP to begin with. It's hard to limit your emotions to just six small-framed, good-natured youngsters.
Not that I'm trying to suggest that these kids haven't suffered enough for our moviegoing dollar. The fact that young dancer Michaela DePrince is even alive after being born into the war zone that was Sierra Leone in the '90 is extraordinary in itself, let alone her adoption by a supportive American family and her battling vitiligo and injury to dance in the YAGP. It's feel-good stuff, a sort of fluffy summer blockbuster for the documentary crowd. Augmented by some inimitable performances captured by cinematographer Nick Higgins, First Position sticks the landing, even if it falters in between.
Opens 5/18 at the Main Art Theatre.