out of Five
Running time: 90
Impressively directed and superbly edited, this is an emotionally engaging documentary with likeable subjects, stunning dance sequences and a suspenseful climax.
What's it all about?
Directed by Bess Kargman, First Position is a heart-warming competition-based documentary (a perennial staple of the Edinburgh Film Festival) that follows six young dancers from around the globe as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world.
The dancers include: gifted tiny blonde 11 year old Aran Bell, who develops a friendship with fellow dancer Gaya Bommer that is utterly adorable; brother and sister Miko and Jules Jarvis Fogarty, whose levels of dedication to ballet aren't exactly equal and whose Russian tutor Victor often steals the film (“Bow at end is actually best part”); beautiful 17 year old American princess Rebecca Houseknecht, whose flexibility seems to disturb her friends; 16 year old Joan Sebastian Zamora, who has left his family behind in Columbia in order to train in New York; and 14 year old Michaela Deprince, an adopted orphan from Sierra Leone whose devoted mother dyes her costumes because, shockingly, “flesh coloured” still isn't available in dark brown.
Kargman adopts a similar structure to Spellbound (the sine qua non of the heartwarming competition-based documentary genre), introducing all the dancers and getting to know their teachers and families, while following their progress through regional qualifying heats as the Youth America Grand Prix approaches. Along the way we get to understand both the level of dedication involved (there's a shocking montage of injured feet shots, plus frequent discussion about giving up any idea of a social life) and exactly how high the stakes are, particularly for Michaela and Joan Sebastian, since the competition prizes include both scholarships and life-changing contracts with professional dance companies.
The subjects are extremely likeable and their interactions with their teachers are often very funny, particularly Aran and his French teacher – after Aran comments that if you make a mistake his tutor lets you know about it, there's an amusing montage of Aran being physically admonished, capped off with a great look to camera as his teacher tries to stretch Aran's face.
In addition, the film is beautifully shot, courtesy of cinematographer Nick Higgins (there's a terrific image of Joan Sebastian dancing alongside his studio view of the New York skyline) and the editing is superb, especially during the competition sequences, which come complete with some very amusing reaction shots. On top of that, the dance sequences themselves are genuinely stunning (Gaya, in particular, delivers a show-stopping interpretative dance number) and Kargman includes some nail-bitingly suspenseful sequences, such as when one of the characters receives a competition-threatening injury.
Beautifully shot and superbly edited, First Position is a thoroughly enjoyable competition-based documentary that's by turns suspenseful, inspirational, powerfully moving and laugh-out-loud funny. Highly recommended.