There’s something unnatural yet utterly captivating about watching fifth-graders — caught in that awkward limbo between little kid and teen — attempt to be sultry. This documentary captures every heart-pounding, stomach-flipping, giggly, sweaty-palmed moment as a bunch of New York City 10-year-olds put on their tango faces to take on the world of competitive ballroom dancing.
First-time filmmakers Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell take an unabashedly hopeful look at a program that gives public school kids 10 weeks of concentrated dance instruction. The kids hail from all over the city, representing different cultural and economic backgrounds. They learn meringue, foxtrot, rumba, swing and, yes, even the tango, then face off in citywide competitions.
It’s close kin to 2002’s Spellbound, the acclaimed doc that followed smarty-pants teens determined to win the National Spelling Bee. Both films illustrate how less privileged kids, when given the guidance and the right push, can do great things. They also share the same thrill of victory/agony of defeat sentimentality.
Mad Hot Ballroom may be the less profound of the two documentaries, but it’s generally more fun. These aren’t necessarily superkids; they could be any of us a decade — or decades — ago.
It also feels lighter, because the filmmakers focus on capturing the feeling of being 10. If you’ve hung out with fifth-graders, you know they can at one moment be startlingly adult and at the next second remarkably immature. This isn’t lost on Agrelo and Sewell, who bring the camera right down to the kids’ level. Like typical fifth graders, they grimace when they have to hold on to their partners, but then manage to dance like pros. Most of the tension and humor come from the uneasy pairings on the dance floor. The most memorable is a woefully short little guy who suffers through what seems like an eternity dancing with a girl twice his height.
The children speak with unfiltered honesty about their feelings about the opposite sex, all of which can be summed up as "eew." As they are yet unspoiled by dating or the urge to date, their musings are delightfully absent of sarcasm, the mainstay of battle-of-the-sexes humor in the adult world.
It’s easy to get the feeling that the whole thing is a setup. You wait for the pitch about the importance of arts funding and the impact the dance lessons can have on youth who otherwise would grow up to become thugs. The pitch does come, but it’s thankfully subtle and mostly implied through the sashaying and shimmying and twirling of these graceful little people. And it’s hard to argue with that.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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