First Position


First Position

Gaya Bommer-Yemini and Aron Bell pensively await their turn onstage.

(2011) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer-Yemini, Michaela Deprince, Jules Jarvis Fogarty, Miko Fogarty, Rebecca Houseknecht, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Denys Ganio, Viktor Kabaniaev, Mia Deprince. Directed by Bess Kargman

 

I must first admit to not being a ballet aficionado. I don’t know a pas de deux from joie de vivre. I know my sister took lessons when I was a kid and I’ve seen productions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker thanks to parents who hoped to (quite without effect, sadly) expand my horizons artistically speaking. Like opera, dance in general and ballet in particular never appealed to me.

Understandably, I wasn’t particularly eager to go see this documentary by first-time feature director Kargman as the subject matter didn’t appeal to me much. You may well have the same prejudice in that regard as I do. However, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to love, or even know much about ballet in order to enjoy First Position.

The movie chronicles six young people ranging in age from ten to seventeen as they prepare for one of the premiere ballet competitions in the world – the Youth America Grand Prix. At stake are scholarships at prestigious academies (for younger participants) and even placements in world class ballet companies around the world. For many, this is the means to achieve a dream.

Aran (age 11) is a Navy brat, his father stationed in Italy. There, Aran is trained by a dour French instructor (Ganio) in Rome, a two hour drive from their home. His father arranged to be stationed there so that his son might continue to receive instruction. Even to an untrained eye like man, Aran has enormous potential. Graceful and precise, he makes complex moves look effortless. His dancing inspired Gaya, an Israeli, to take up ballet which is fortunate for she is a legitimate talent in her own right. She also has a major crush on Aran.

Michaela (age 14) was adopted by an elderly Jewish couple from Philadelphia from her home in war-torn Sierra Leone. A chance look at a dance magazine with a beautiful ballerina, nearly ecstatic with joy, seized Michaela’s imagination and turned her on the road to the YAGP. Along the way she must fight the mistaken perception that African-descended dancers lack the grace and elegance to be great ballet dancers – Michaela not only has grace and elegance, she has charm and wisdom as well. Her story is perhaps the most emotionally moving in the entire film.

Joan (age 16) lives in the violent Columbian city of Cali. Realizing early that he has a gift, his family sent him alone to New York City for further training. He misses his family terribly, and his family worries that he is eating too much American fast food (he’s not; most of his meals consist of rice, beans and some sort of protein mixed in). Joan, matinee idol handsome and with a spectacular body, looks to be a marquee dancer if only he can get noticed.

Miko (age 12) is a very talented dancer while her brother Jules (age 10) is less committed. Their mother is a combination of a stage mom and a Jewish mom; pushing both her children towards excellence. When both qualify for the semi-finals of the YAGP; when one of them chooses to drop ballet because it isn’t what they want to do with their lives, she is devastated. She and her Silicon Valley entrepreneur husband have moved from Palo Alto to Walnut Creek (about  a two hour drive) to be closer to the ballet teacher Miko likes (her husband moved the business there as well which I’m sure didn’t sit too well with his employees). That teacher, Viktor, is impressed with Miko and amused by Jules who is more of a typical kid. Viktor isn’t afraid to override the instructions of the meddling mom from time to time.

Only Rebecca (age 17) fits the stereotype of the ballerina; feminine almost to a fault, pretty and blonde with a preference for all things pink, a cheerleader in school and a princess in all else. She lives in suburban Maryland and unlike most of the other kids who have devoted their lives to their art to the point where all of them are home schooled, Rebecca attends high school and pretty much has a normal life. That doesn’t diminish her desire to be a ballerina however and she is hoping desperately that the representatives of the ballet companies who are attending the YAGP will not only notice her looks but also her legitimate talent as well and offer her a job.

The film looks at the things that these kids do to pursue their dream; the injuries (one of the competitors severely injures their Achilles tendon on the eve of the finals in New York City), the ridicule from other kids (at least one of the children depicted here was pulled from attending public school because of it) and the dedication to hours and hours of practice which is oftentimes painful, leaving the kids exhausted and sore. Like Olympic athletes, these kids have a dream and their parents are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

It turns out that the YAGP helped select the kids for Kargman to follow (which she did for a year) which is a little bit disturbing – how objective were the filmmakers when it came to showing some of the negative aspects of these kinds of competition such as the stress that it puts on the kids and the financial strain it puts on families. However, it does show kids doing some amazing things – the five who compete in the finals are all incredible dancers, particularly Aran who steals the show whenever he is dancing.

I will say that this doesn’t really inspire me to get season tickets to the Orlando Ballet Theatre, or to seek out performances on DVD or PBS. However, it does give me a new-found respect for the kids who work as hard as any athlete to succeed – and the families that sacrifice to give them the opportunity.

NOTE: While the film played at the Florida Film Festival last month, I was unable to see it. It is playing at the Enzian today and tomorrow.

REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking moments of dance. Engaging kids are not only photogenic but articulate as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes seems like a bit of an advertisement for the YAGP.

FAMILY VALUES: Generally suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kargman took ballet lessons and considered dancing professionally until she was 14, when she chose to pursue other interests.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are stellar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spellbound

COSTUME LOVERS: The tutus and costumes are varied; Aran’s for example are made for him by a professional costumer in Chicago, while Michaela’s are made by her mom. Joan wears only a simple pair of tights.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Defendor

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Whip It


Whip It

Ellen Page flies around the track, hoping her Juno reputation isn't following her.

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Zoe Bell. Directed by Drew Barrymore

The movies have had a love-hate relationship with the roller derby. A number of fine documentaries have been made on the subject of the skaters and their passion for this sport that many dismiss as pro wrestling on wheels (and those that do are ignorant of how physically taxing it is) dating back forty years, but few feature films have captured that world.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a tiny Texas town outside of the state capital of Austin and like many trapped in tiny Texas towns knows that there are two things expected of those being raised there; that the boys will love football and try out for the team, and the girls will love cheerleading and enter into beauty pageants, which is what Bliss’ hyperthyroid mom (Harden) is pushing her into. Bliss despises it and despises what she is expected to conform into being. She and her friend Pash (Shawkat) are octagonal pegs in rhomboidal holes.

Then, while on a trip to Austin, Bliss spies a flyer for a female roller derby event, and thinking it might be fun, convinces Pash to attend with her. Bliss realizes that this is something that speaks to her, watching girls beat the crap out of one another while whirling around a banked track. Bliss apparently has some sadomasochistic tendencies deep in her teenaged DNA.

She wrangles a try-out with one of the league’s sad sack teams, the Hurl Scouts (so named because they dress like girl scouts…all the teams have gimmicks like that) and to her surprise, she makes the team. She adopts the skater persona of Babe Ruthless (and yes, these are the kinds of names the real skaters take) and quickly becomes a break-out star in the league. She also finds kindred spirits in fellow skaters Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), as well as a surly rival in Iron Maven (Lewis) who skates for another team, the high and mighty High Rollers.

Of course, the manure hits the fan when mommy finds out and while her henpecked dad (Stern) is all for it, her mom forbids her lil’ angel from competing in a sport where she actually might get…bruised. You see, she neglected to tell her team she’s underaged, a major no-no. With a big match coming up and the clutches of conformity reaching out to grab her, Bliss has to make up her mind to decide to be what others expect of her or to find her own way.

Barrymore makes her directorial debut and quite frankly it’s a pretty good one. Like Barrymore herself, the movie has charm, wit and heart, and an excellent indie rock soundtrack. While Barrymore seems to be at home acting in romantic comedies these days, she actually pulls together this coming of age dramedy quite nicely.

It helps that she has a nifty cast to help pull it off. Harden is making a nice niche for herself as the overbearing mom, and she pulls it off without a hitch. Stern, who was a presence in the 80s and 90s and has gone largely MIA of late, is also satisfying as the dad.

The roller derby sequences weren’t a disgrace either; most of the actresses did their own skating and a number of actual skaters play minor roles in the film. You get a sense of the physicality of the sport and the conditioning needed to be any good at it, which sets it above a lot of sports movies these days which rely overly much on treacle to sell their storyline.

There are a few lapses in logic however. For example, the movie is set in Texas but nobody other than Harden seems to have the twang. I guarantee you if you got this many people together in Austin more than one of them would have the distinctive Texas twang. Also, I find it hard to believe that a mom like Harden would have missed the bumps, bruises and cuts that her daughter surely would have after a full-contact sport like roller derby. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Bliss would escape each of the matches without a scratch.

The movie has a fine empowerment message and looks at the sport and those who participate in it with some fondness and even reverence, which is a change from the low regard it is often held in. For my money, this is some superior entertainment that establishes Barrymore as a director with a future, and adds a little depth to Page’s resume as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The girl empowerment theme is done nicely. Page and her skating cohorts are believable in the derby sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough Texas twang here, as well as other lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is on the crude side there are certainly some sexual situations and drug usage but mild enough that most teens should be okay to see this, although the more impressionable sorts should get a long look before putting this in the DVD/Blu-Ray player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Shauna Cross was once a real-life skater in the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and took several of the character names, team names and backstage plot lines were taken from her experiences there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Perhaps owing to the movie’s disappointing box office receipts, there is a dearth of interesting features here; however, a Fox Movie Channel “Writer’s Draft” series on screenwriter Shauna Cross is a welcome addition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.6M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For those interested in the real thing, the TXRD website (the league depicted in the film) is here.