[Review] – First Position

15 May

Title: First Position
Year: 2012
Director: Bess Kargman
Writer: –
Starring: Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer Yemini, Michaela Deprince
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 90 min
IMDb Rating: 5.5
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Metacritic: 72

I’ve known for a while now that I really, really want any daughters I have to at least give ballet a chance. I just love the dance and I love the discipline and skill set and aesthetics of it all. So I went into First Position ready to like it; it was, after all, a documentary that follows half a dozen young ballet dancers putting their lifelong dreams on the line as they pursue a life in professional ballet. Injuries, sheer exhaustion, demolished feet, emotional exhaustion, adolescent tribulations, First Position has them all, delivering a truly amazing portrait of these truly passionate individuals.

It just really shows how much we can all achieve if we really want it and if we really go for it from such a young age, with such a decisiveness and being so incredibly hard on themselves. These kids are preparing for the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world’s most elite ballet competitions where thousands of dancers congregate, with others and themselves expecting them to be absolutely perfect in order to get one of the very limited number of elite scholarships and contracts that are up for grabs. And the kids we get are all very different from one another but with one common goal and talent, and they really do make for terrific storylines here, as we witness how a willing spirit can achieve whatever it wants.

The film is always super upbeat, which I think is something that it really has going for it, because that tonality really makes it kind of compulsively watchable at times, and you get seriously sucked into the lives of these kids. And the ballet part is brilliant, and the film really is visually stunning at times and it’s shot awesomely as we get deep into this prominent competition in which these kids vie for so much more than actual trophies. Seeing them dance their pieces and practice is great, but First Position is as great a documentary as it because of how it gets us into the lives of these particular subjects, some of whom would have made for compelling enough films all by their lonesome.

Take Aran Bell, for example, he’s an eleven-year-old kid who comes from a military family who really support him and acknowledge the fact that their son has a truly great and bright future in the world of ballet ahead of him. Early on in the film he shows the foot stretcher he has in his room, and just as he’s showing us how it works he says it hurts a lot. I loved that moment because of how he said that the foot stretcher caused him pain; he said it like it was nothing, a necessary part of the gig, with a dry sense of humor. And then you’ll get to see the kid dance and your jaw will start dropping to the floor, the laws of gravity not really being ones that affect his body.

For contrast you can then take Michaela Deprince who’s an orphan originally from Sierra Leone who’s adopted by a Philadelphia family after her parents were killed in her war-torn homeland. You may now be thinking that ballet is not necessarily a dance form in which there are a lot of black people, and Michaela is most certainly aware of the prejudices that exist in the world she wants to be in so much. Her story is absolutely amazing, and by the time director Bess Kargman (in her film debut) finishes telling it you’ll be reaching for a kleenex.

Ms. Kargman definitely shows a knack for storytelling in how she presents these young performers to us, and she keeps the storytelling approach pretty straightforward, just following these kids around as they do their thing and their stories evolve. Plus ballet is an art form that’s just absolutely cinematic, from how the dances are shot on-stage, to what goes on behind the scenes in the competition as these kids wait for their turn and start getting competitive, to how they practice and deal with the physical and emotional strains. By the time the film starts coming closer to the finales of the competition the stakes will be damn high, and you’ll have invested like crazy on what the results of it mean for these kids.

If anything, I had a slight problem with the fact that we had so many kids to invest on. Yes, we have six kids and all six stories are absolutely amazing, but a part of me was thinking that if Ms. Kargman had decided to just focussed on three, maybe four of these kids then we could have gone deeper still into their lives, and we could have gotten dance sequences that would be much more fleshed out. That’s my one small issue with First Position, because otherwise it’s an absolutely stunning documentary from a filmmaker who really has a voice and seems as passionate about this story and about the stakes of the competition as the subjects of her film are about ballet.

It’s also clear that Ms. Kargman gives this film a feel that’s undeniably kind of enthusiastic about ballet competitions and that, even if it does focus on some of the harsh aspects of it, doesn’t really shows us the negative reactions some people have to events like the Youth America Grand Prix. Still, ballet remains a hugely fascinating thing to watch on screen, and in First Position you get to see great performances that are created seemingly effortlessly by hugely talented young people as well as getting a peek into just how much work goes into making it look that way.

You will surely find yourself involved in these kids’ lives, and as the date of the finals (to which only 300 of the initial 5’000 participants get to) grows closer then you’ll find yourself feeling the anxiety, wanting for it all to turn out okay for them. Yes, I acknowledge it has a couple of problems, but they’re super small in contrast to all the things this documentary does right; simply put, it’s a hugely inspirational portrait of what you can do if you set your mind to it and have great discipline. I’m making my future daughters watch this one for sure.

Grade: A-

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One Response to “[Review] – First Position”

  1. AndyWatchesMovies May 22, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    Very odd gap between Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB’s ratings…
    Great review, I’m interested in checking this one out!

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