According to one expert in First Position, the keys to making it in the cutthroat world of ballet are "body, training, passion, personality." Freshman director Bess Kargman manages to find six dancers who possess all four—and none are old enough to vote. Like Joan, 16, who left his family in Colombia to put his talent to better use in America, and Aran, an 11-year-old prodigy who wears camouflage shorts and shoots BB guns when not flawlessly pirouetting while dressed like a magician. Most intriguing is Michaela, 14. Adopted from Sierra Leone by a Philadelphia couple after the murder of her biological parents, she saw her first ballerina on the cover of a magazine while in an orphanage and determined her future right then, even though "black girls can't dance ballet."
As she chronicles the dancers' preparation for the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix in New York, Kargman maintains an inspirational tone, even when delving into the harsher side of ballet life. A montage of injuries, compiling close-ups of mangled feet and young dancers splayed out across practice room floors, resembles one of those commercials advocating for abused animals. But the intent is to emphasize how hard these kids work, not question the ethics of putting children through such rigorous physical strain. Questioning isn't Kargman's objective at any point in First Position. It's merely to show the fruits of youthful ambition. That's fine enough to make a compelling documentary, especially when the payoff is a series of dazzling performances.
Still, our eyebrows are raised and never really come down. Is it natural for preteens to be so driven? Whose dream is this, really? It's hard not to feel at least a tiny bit creeped out by some of the instructors, forcibly contorting lithe, barely pubescent bodies into unnatural positions. (It doesn't help that Aran's teacher is a cigarette-puffing Italian who looks like Lou Reed on a bender.) An issue the film does address, in some small measure, is whether the intense dedication to forging a career is robbing these kids of a normal adolescence. "I think I've had the right amount of ballet and childhood," contends Miko, 12. But like all of Kargman's subjects, she displays a striking maturity that's at once endearing and disconcerting. "She becomes an adult when she dances," says one mother of her child. She, and Kargman, regard this as a good thing. I'm not so sure.
SEE IT: First Position opens Friday at Cinema 21.