DOCUMENTARIES structured around a single competition tend to be rote: Follow a handful of competitors around with cameras. Make the audience feel invested in individual stories. Let the chips fall where they may.
Director Bess Kargman faithfully follows that formula with First Position, but she at least enjoys the benefit of a visually beautiful competition. The Youth America Grand Prix is one of the world's most intense ballet competitions, attracting thousands of young competitors from the age of nine to 19, seeking prizes, scholarships and contracts with the most prestigious companies in the world.
Kargman seems to have arbitrarily chosen six competitors from a hat. Aran, 11, is a tow-headed skateboarding American boy who happens to be preternaturally gifted when it comes to ballet. Rebecca, 17, is a blond high schooler with skill, beauty, a latent princess obsession and a violently pink bedroom. Miko, 12, is another talent whose love of dance seems at least partially the result of a driving stage mom. Joan-Sebastian, 16, is a Colombian boy looking to realize his dream of being a professional dancer.
Most compelling of all is Michaela, 14, a girl adopted away from wartorn Sierra Leone by her kind-hearted American parents. Michaela's history is positively hair-raising. (She matter-of-factly describes trying to intervene on behalf of a teacher who was nevertheless dismembered by rebel forces.) After sustaining an injury before the competition, Michaela demonstrates such pluck, one can't help conclude she deserves a documentary of her own.
Alas, Kargman has a formula to fulfil, and that she does, demonstrating more obligation than inspiration.
Director Bess Kargman's camera barely misses a nuance, and if the talent-show format has grown a little tired, it's undeniably effective as drama.
-- Trevor Johnston, Time Out
If you thought Black Swan made ballet look grim, this festival-fave documentary offers an earthier but no less gripping portrait of the profession's crippling realities.
-- Emma Dibdin, Total Film