First Position (NR)

Documentary 90 May 4, 2012
By Nick Schager
The nonfiction formula pioneered by Spellbound leads to frustrating superficiality in First Position, a glossy documentary about a multicultural collection of young ballet dancers striving to secure awards, scholarships, and job contracts at the prestigious annual Youth America Grand Prix. Director Bess Kargman adheres to a now-familiar template in which glib portraits of various talented kids from around the world provide human-interest background for the central competition, which in this instance is a vital gateway to an adult artistic career. From adopted Sierra Leone orphan Michaela and Colombian-born Joan Sebastian to military-family prodigy Aran and brother-sister duo Jules and Miko, Kargman's subjects are a uniformly gifted and engaging group. However, their home lives and struggles with a variety of relevant issues—racism, peer discrimination born from gender stereotypes, injuries, anorexia, and the personal and monetary sacrifices made by both children and their parents to chase this dream—are given little more than cursory lip service. The result is a film that eschews in-depth insight in favor of easily digestible who's-going-to-win suspense, a tack that's aided by Kargman's rather poignant (and visually graceful) evocation of pre-performance anxiety but ultimately leaves the material feeling deflated once the winners emerge.
Bess Kargman Aran Bell, Michaela DePrince, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Rebecca Houseknecht, Gaya Bommer Yemini, Miko, Jules Fogarty Bess Kargman Sundance Selects