Monday, May 16, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

Last night,markosf and I went to a preview of "Mad Hot Ballroom" (dir. Marilyn Agrelo, US, 110 mins., 2005), which I had a ticket for on the last day of the SF Film Festival (aka first day of chemo - blech!). Needless to say, I was thrilled to get a chance to see it for 'free.' ('Free' as in I paid for it once already.) Sometimes, festival audiences can be overly enthusiastic to a film as it ends. If last night's audience was any indication, the festival audience must have gone NUTS and given the director a standing ovation! Tonight's preview was a 'SF Film Society Members (and guests) Only' screening, and we did give it a pretty rousing bit of applause at the end! (Yes, I know that bothers some of you...) I was right there with them!

Paramount Pictures (the distributor) is pitching this as "A kind of 'Spellbound' crossed with 'Strictly Ballroom'" (which is a pull-quote from Kenneth Tynan, LA Times). Well, that does sell it, but it is actually somewhere in between. Where "Spellbound" is at times harrowing and "Strictly Ballroom" is camp, "Mad Hot Ballroom" is joyous and celebratory. We follow groups of 10 and 11 year olds from three schools in the New York City public school system as they prepare for the city wide ballroom competition, where they will compete as teams. Though the kids get most of the screen time, the teachers are an important part of the documentary as well. Oddly enough, we only see some of the parents at the final competition. The film doesn't focus on the typical 'nature vs. nurture' argument that most, if not all juvenile documentaries do, but it focuses almost exclusively on the classes and the competition. The interviews with the kids mainly concern their feelings about the intimacy of 'dancing hand in hand and eye to eye' with each other and a lot of 'critiquing' of their potential dance partners. The teachers interviews don't get TOO preachy about the role of the arts in education, but they do make their point early on. As the time of the competitions (there are quarter finals, semi-finals and the finals) draw near, the teachers actually start speaking more like sports coaches than dance instructors.

There are some stand out personalities, however the only very small glitch I had was that I couldn't keep track of who was in which school. Once it gets into the semi-finals, I wasn't really sure who was and wasn't there. In fact, it was even difficult to associate which teams were associated with which teachers, at one point. There is also a small diversion to the school representing Queens (the reigning champions) in an effort to find a 'villain' to root against during the finals, which was not necessary.

However, the true joy of the film is watching the children physically, mentally and emotionally deal with each other during the dances in the five weeks of preparation for the competition, as well as the reactions from the teachers and judges. A great deal of that is due to the fact that they all want to be there! And you should want to see this! It opens Friday...

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