Bess Kargman’s First Position serves as an affirming and heart-warming counter-argument to movies like The Red Shoes and Black Swan, declaring that the ambition of a young ballet prodigy need not always be followed by the inevitable descent into madness. The documentary, which follows roughly half a dozen children as they train to compete in the world-renowned dance competition known as the Youth America Grand Prix, asks us to root unequivocally for each of its subjects as they work tirelessly to see their lifelong dreams become a reality. At the same time, it gazes upon the entire process of pushing these extremely young people down a physically and emotionally draining path with a fairly uncritical –even glamorous – eye. As a result the movie is perhaps a bit lacking when it comes to conflict, but that doesn’t make the movie any less riveting. When it comes to stakes, what the movie has to offer is astronomical.
The children we follow come from wildly divergent backgrounds. One boy, Aran, is a military brat whose father is stationed in Kuwait. Gaya is one of Aran’s only good friends, and is just as driven to succeed as he is. Michaela is an African refugee who was adopted by an American family. The girlish and lovely Rebecca has seized all the privilege of her American life and her impeccably proportioned dancing body to realize her dream to grow up as a ballerina, while another contestant, Joan, is a young man from a poor Colombian village. Two siblings, Miko and her younger brother Jules, are pushed into ballet by their persistent mother. Miko is immensely talented and knows it; Jules is less talented, and seems to know it as well.
Kargman knows how to capitalize on these children’s life stories, finding within each subject a sense of individuality that gives them a unique narrative. At the same time, she successfully exploits the connective tissue between each of these stories – unbridled ambition – in order to articulate what is the movie’s uplifting yet fairly simplistic thesis statement: that greatness can be achieved no matter your circumstances. Of course, that means First Position is decidedly less interested in delving all that deeply into the very real social impediments these children face.
They are hinted at in the minimal time we spend with the kids’ parents and trainers. The amount of pressure Joan’s parents put on their son, for example, is almost oppressive. Miko and Jules’ mother comes off as the stereotypical super-mom in the sense that her personal investment in her kids’ training – and her crushing disappointment to see Jules’ waning interest – feels suspiciously shameless and self-compensatory. Michaela’s challenges are unique given the institutionalized stereotypes she faces as a black dancer in a notoriously racist art form. The subjects and narratives of Kargman’s documentary clearly provide fodder for much larger conversations, akin to what has been seen in better documentaries like Hoop Dreams. Had Kargman demonstrated a bit more curiosity regarding her subjects’ circumstances – and had she not simply exploited them for the purposes of a high-stakes narrative – the documentary could have been something great.
But to Kargman’s credit, First Position is still a very, very good documentary, and it’s difficult to begrudge her the deficit of conflict too deeply while watching the actual movie. This is because what the movie is actually interested in delivering – the cathartic pleasure of seeing each kid getting rewarded for their hard work – is tremendously well-crafted. It doesn’t hurt that each young dancer we meet is both tremendously likeable and incredibly talented. When the dancers actually dance – while either rehearsing or competing – Kargman wisely plants down the camera to capture the action. We see the ambition and the drive of these kids in each pirouette and pas de deux they perform. It is also through the juxtaposition of their youth and their absurdly complex understanding of the craft that we understand precisely what is at stake and what these kids have to lose. This causes for some genuinely nerve-wracking moments. When one performer suffers a painful foot injury, we fear legitimately for that child’s future. When another performer unexpectedly falls during a key performance, I know I was not alone when I audibly gasped.
But finally, when the movie ends, and we find each of the subjects with a new – and likely fortuitous – future ahead of them, we also cheer. We cheer because the high stakes Kargman establishes in First Position are also coupled with deeply gratifying payoff. The movie leaves you sharing the feel-good high its subjects surely experienced. It’s not until afterward that you might end up lamenting the absence of something a bit more substantial, but even that cannot diminish this ballet movie’s capacity to entertain and to move.
Bottom Line: Bess Krugman’s brisk, captivating ballet documentary may not have a lot of substance, but does it ever know how to amp up the stakes.