"First Position" is a welcome antidote to tawdry reality shows like "Dance Moms" and breathless competitions like "So You Think You Can Dance."
Director Bess Kargman's documentary follows a half-dozen aspiring professional ballet dancers at the Youth America Grand Prix, an elite competition for performers ages 9-19 where prizes, scholarships and contracts with prestigious companies await.
Structurally similar to the documentaries "Spellbound" (about the National Spelling Bee) and "Waiting for 'Superman'" (about public-school students hoping for chances at a better education), "First Position" reveals the home lives of these youngsters as they prepare and lets us get to know their families, all of whom have made huge sacrifices to foster their children's dreams. They come from varied backgrounds but they're all inspiring in their focus and discipline, as well as their willingness to embrace a childhood that is far from ordinary.
There's Aran, the 11-year-old son of a career Navy man whose work has taken the family to Italy, which means Aran must travel two hours every day to Rome to train. He's got a lean, fair-haired elegance about him as well as self-possession and finesse beyond his years. His bedroom is stuffed with baseball gloves and a BB gun as well as a device to help him define his toe pointe.
Fourteen-year-old Michaela was born in war-ravaged Sierra Leone and adopted by a Jewish couple from Philadelphia after her parents were killed. She's strong and muscular but hopes to defy expectations of what a black ballet dancer should look and move like by performing a delicate piece from "Swan Lake."
Soft-spoken Joan Sebastian, 16, came to the United States from a small, mountain village near Cali, Colombia. He lives in a sparse apartment in Queens and calls home when he can, hearing reminders from his parents about the importance of his time here. But he doesn't need any extra motivation: He's clearly a very serious, driven young man who dreams of dancing with the Royal Ballet in London someday.
Twelve-year-old Miko and her 10-year-old brother, J.J., are both dancers of half-Japanese, half-British descent living in the San Francisco Bay Area, although big sister is obviously the more talented and focused of the two. Like many advanced young dancers, she's home schooled to allow more time for rehearsal and travel.
Then there's 17-year-old Rebecca, a blonde, all-American, self-proclaimed princess from suburban Maryland who tries to maintain as much of a normal teenage life as possible (she attends public high school, has a boyfriend, was a cheerleader). She's got the body, looks and talent to be a star ballerina, but she also knows that time is running out and contracts with top companies are scarce.
Kargman gives everyone equal time and attention — she depicts no one as a villain or diva, nor does she lead us toward rooting for any particular dancer. Even Rebecca comes off as gracious and polite, wishing her competitors good luck backstage and wondering why others don't do the same. The director's tasteful, intimate approach features all of the theatricality of the art form with none of the backstage drama; "The Turning Point," this is not. Her film actually may be a little too understated, a little too safe.
But Kargman is both a former ballet dancer herself as well as a journalist, so she knows not only what's important but also how to stay out of the way and let the story tell itself in her filmmaking debut. Little girls (and some boys) will love "First Position": It's an ideal film for kids to see with their families, even if they don't know their plié from their grand jete.
"First Position," a Sundance Selects release, is unrated but contains nothing more offensive than some mangled toenails. Running time: 94 minutes. Three stars out of four.