This movie’s been touted as a kind of blend of last year’s spelling bee documentary, Spellbound, and Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, but it’s not riddled with the troubling undercurrents of the former and lacks the quirky, almost John Waters-esque style of the latter. And while Mad Hot Ballroom doesn’t share the overbearing success ethic of Spellbound, which is a plus, this also carries a price, in that the film lacks a degree of tension.
Indeed, the teachers (parents are relegated to the background, when they’re seen at all) spend so much time telling their students that winning isn’t important that it seems almost beside the point who does or doesn’t win the dance competitions. Yet there’s a certain hypocrisy at work here, as evidenced by a scene where the teachers and judges discuss winning among themselves (“Second place is actually the first loser”), keeping the kids out of the loop. (One wonders how the kids felt about this when they saw the finished film.)
The film’s approach is straightforward — follow several New York City ballroom dance classes of 11-year-olds for 10 weeks leading up to a competition — and it’s one that, by rights, ought to work. It’s certainly worked for hundreds, if not thousands, of fictional movies since the invention of films about competitions. And to some degree, it does work — just not as well as it might. (Not to mention that the movie will leave you wondering just exactly what the filmmakers would have done, had the results of the competition turned out differently.)
The hook of the film, however, is less its inherent drama than the picture it presents of the kids themselves and, inherently, the value it places on the need for funding the arts in the public school system. This is perhaps a good thing — though I suspect it was unconscious — since there’s really only so much mileage to be gotten out of watching kids do the fox trot, the tango, etc. As it stands, there’s a little too much footage devoted to the dancing itself, which tends to wear out its welcome. I mean, the kids are good, but Fred and Ginger they ain’t.
Left to themselves — just talking about their lives and perceptions of the class and competitions — the kids are often more engaging, and this is what holds attention throughout the movie. In fact, the glimpses that we get into these kids — and to a lesser extent, their teachers — make some of the dance footage seem even more excessive than it is.
The image of one little boy who’s confronted with a two-feet-taller dance partner is almost worth the price of admission by itself. The teachers come across rather well, too — though one of them (Alex Tchassov) is rather disconcertingly like Udo Kier (whom, it must be said, is somehow hard to imagine teaching 11-year-olds to dance). They’re presented as thoroughly committed and involved, and that’s a pleasure to see in a nonfiction film that isn’t written with an eye toward manipulating the feel-good gland.
This is not a great film, but it’s consistently likable, entertaining and real. If this summer finds you maxed out on super-heroes and space operas (with more to come), it makes for a nice respite. Rated PG for some thematic elements.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke