MAD HOT BALLROOM (Marilyn Agrelo). 100 minutes. Opens Friday (May 20). For venues and times, see Movies, page 117. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Already dubbed Spellbound Meets Strictly Ballroom, this irresistible, crowd-pleasing documentary (look for it on next year's Oscar ballot) focuses on three New York City public schools competing in an annual ballroom dancing competition.
Filming in schools and homes in three neighbourhoods - trendy Tribeca, Italian/Asian Bensonhurt and dirt-poor immigrant Washington Heights - director Marilyn Agrelo practically rubs our noses in issues of race and poverty. She's not exactly subtle.
The appealing, expressive fourth- and fifth-grade kids range from street-smart immigrant Dominican girls who know about drugs and sex to one relatively pampered Broadway-baby-in-training who has dreams of becoming a triple-threat actor/dancer/singer.
Agrelo finds as much contrasting drama in the adults who oversee them, from the touchy-feely Tribeca teacher to the no-bullshit Washington Heights instructor who looks like she'd cut her own mother from the squad if she spoke out of turn.
The competition, when it comes, is nail-biting. And there's a strange thrill in watching these prepubescent kids swing their little hips and enjoy themselves while fox-trotting and tango-ing to the terrific, old-fashioned music. I'm not sure, despite one interviewee's comment, that ballroom dancing represents all that is civilized in the modern world, but it does represent something these kids can work at and take pride in.
The real revelation, though, comes from seeing the different ways 11-year-old boys and girls interact. The boys are all intent on competing, while the girls are all concerned with the boys.
Now, that's something that gets you mad.