One of the most striking moments early in the documentary First Position comes when a talented ballet student, an 11-year-old boy named Aran, inserts his foot into a sort of clamp that holds it in a mercilessly pointed position.
"This is a foot stretcher," he says. "Hurts a lot."
It's curious that an entire genre of documentary has grown up around endearing kids being pushed hard to achieve in various fields — pushed so hard that the audience is left to wonder whether the pressure might be too much for them.
But that's where we are in the wake of the much-loved 2002 spelling bee documentary Spellbound, as well as other films, including this year's outstanding chess doc, Brooklyn Castle, which is currently on the festival circuit.
First Position aspires to do for ballet what Spellbound did for spelling: show how hard the kids work, how ferocious their ambition is, how they incorporate an elite activity into any kind of normal life. For Aran, it's a constant battle. "It's just not possible," says his mother of the idea of a kid like Aran indulging in sleepovers and other frivolous kid activities.
The kids in the film are all appealing: Aran's friend Gaya, a girl who became inspired to dance after seeing his chops; Miko and Jules, a young brother and sister whose mother is hesitant to admit that their talent levels (and passion levels) are very different; Michaela, a 14-year-old adopted as a small child from Sierra Leone after her parents died in the civil war; Joan Sebastian, a 16-year-old boy whose family is back in Colombia as he pursues ballet in the U.S.; and Rebecca, a 17-year-old seeking a spot in a professional company in an environment where, as her teacher says, "companies are shedding dancers, they're not hiring them."
All of these dancers with their differing goals are brought together in New York for the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition in which the youngest want awards, the ones in the middle want scholarships to prestigious ballet schools to continue training, and the oldest ones — like Rebecca — want contracts.
It's a simple and lovely movie, and particularly for people who haven't seen Spellbound, it's a great introduction to the intriguing mix of parents — neurotic, loving, pressuring, calming — who raise great kids who do great things. It wisely avoids stage-parent cliches, although there's an implied eyebrow-raise at things like the fact that Miko and Jules get nonfat yogurt while their parents eat low-fat.
There are some effective notes about the nature of ballet: Michaela is acutely aware that African-American dancers are often muttered about as "too muscular" and such, and she wants badly to be not only a great ballerina but one who is, as she puts it, "delicate."
But there's something about First Position that's a little expected for fans of the educational documentary. One of the charming things about Spellbound was that the kids were so genuinely odd — so marvelously, fascinatingly, endearingly odd in a way that seemed unique to the offbeat discipline of competitive spelling. These kids, on the other hand, are not particularly odd. They're very much what you might expect elite young dancers to be like: focused, tense, graceful, obedient to teachers and judges, and frequently in pain.
There are certainly sequences that startle — shots of beaten-up toes, for instance — but that early moment with Aran and the foot-stretcher, where the real costs of what he's doing seem so acute and so particular, is rarely equaled.
There's a lot of footage of preparation and hard work, but director Bess Kargman doesn't get very deeply into the relationship between these specific kids and their peculiar passions. Perhaps it's because ballet is a discipline that places so much emphasis on grace and composure, but the subjects of this particular film are almost too controlled to make ideal documentary subjects. And the things that are most interesting, like Miko and Jules' mother and her struggle with their different fates in ballet, are seen rather fleetingly.
Ultimately, First Position is a good film clearly made with love, and it will have plenty of appeal for fans and students of ballet. But it feels at times like it's marching through a set of stories without pausing long enough to learn a lot about them, and the outcomes at the end are mostly what you'll expect. That robs it of some of the poignancy that comes in training or competition films where a critical victory seems to be in reach and simply doesn't materialize.
For ballet fans, First Position speaks eloquently to the sacrifices of young dancers. But if you're looking to understand what drives extraordinarily high achievers, it has frustratingly little to say.