Dir: Marilyn Agrelo. US.2005. 114mins.
An upbeat, feelgooddocumentary about kids from three New York public elementary schools whocompete in a citywide ballroom dancing competition, Mad Hot Ballroom isthis year's Spellbound, if with a less an ironic take on its subjectsthan the spelling-bee documentary and gutsier motivational verve.
One of the hot tickets atthis year's European Film Market, the documentary - which premiered atSlamdance in January - demonstrated (rather like last year's EFM buzz-title, LesChoristes) that the lack of an official Berlinale slot is no impediment toa film's pulling power in the market. Its two market screenings were sooversubscribed that a third was added by Fortissimo, which picked upinternational rights (except for Australia and NZ) from Paramount Classics,after the latter had written out a $4 million cheque for the film at Park City.
Paramount Classics haveasked the director to trim a few minutes off the version screened in Berlin forthe film's US release; but in reality it rarely drags.
On one level, Mad HotBallroom is about dancing to win. But in reality the film is about a lotmore than this. It touches on questions of integration (the vast majority ofthe kids in one of the featured schools, PS 115 in Washington Heights, comefrom the area's large Dominican Republic community); on the frustrations and everydayheroism of the teaching profession; and on how an alternative subject likeballroom dancing can engage and focus kids left behind by the traditionalcurriculum.
But it is also a perceptiveportrait of a delicate age - 11 to 12 - when children are half innocent, halfcynical and forewarned. Alternating dance classes, interviews with teachers andpupils, and eavesdropping on peer-to-peer conversations and gossip, Mad HotBallroom builds to something more than an inspirational tale of triumphover adversity. These kids discuss drugs, school and the opposite sex withremarkable freedom, though one feels at times that some of the difficulties oftheir home lives have been airbrushed out (perhaps inevitable, given that theparents are going to be watching too).
The writing credit forco-producer Amy Sewell does not mean that any of the lines we hear werescripted; it simply means that the idea for the documentary came from anarticle she wrote for a local newspaper.
In the course of the film,several characters emerge, including pretty, feisty Emma from PS 150, with herRock Star T-shirt; or solemn Cyrus, a tiny, curly-haired philosopher with avoice and a manner old beyond his years; or problem student Karina, whose fieryenergies were channelled into sulky rebellion until she discovered ballroomdancing.
The teachers too arerevealed as real, flawed, memorable people, and clever editing even imposes akind of character parabola. Yomaira Reynoso, teacher-leader of the PS 115 teamand a sort of academic J-Lo, comes across as Miss Latin Ambition at first; buther energy and her affection for her pupils is so infectious that we forgiveher inability to pretend to the camera, or to her little waltzers andfoxtrotters, that winning is not important.
The film's obvious DV origingrates at first, but once the story takes hold - within the first 10 minutes -we forget to worry about details like resolution and white balance. The music -which mixes tango, charanga, rhumba, big band classics and contemporary hip-hop- fuels a trip that follows a classic crescendo structure from the first,stumbling lessons through to the grand regional finals. It all goes accordingto the script, thank goodness, and the exhilarating ending is real ChariotsOf Fire stuff.
Prod co: Just One Prods
Int'l sales: Fortissimo
US dist: Paramount Classics
Prods: Amy Sewell, Marilyn Agrelo
Scr: Amy Sewell
Cine: Claudia Raschke-Robinson
Ed: Sabine Krayenbuhl
Mus: Steven Lutvak, Joseph Baker