First Position Movie Review

Category: documentary
Director: Bess Kargman
Music: Chris Hajian
Australian release date: April 11, 2013

Reviewers’ one-word verdicts
rolanstein: unmissable
Karen: fascinating

Review 1: (rolanstein)
This extraordinary documentary from first-time director Bess Kargman follows six young ballet dancers as they train with building intensity for the Youth America Grand Prix. This prestigious international competition attracts thousands of talented young dancers vying for a mere handful of coveted prizes – full scholarships to the best ballet schools in the world.

For the younger dancers, the competition represents a chance to be noticed and selected for expert tuition, but the older contestants are literally dancing for their professional stage career lives. And they carry not only their own hopes and dreams, but those of their families, who have committed enormous time, energy and money to supporting them in their aspirations.

The stakes are high indeed, then, which makes for riveting and emotion-charged real-life drama.

16yo Joan Sebastian is more conscious than most of his sense of responsibility to his poor Colombian family, who have invested their entire hope for the future in him. An onerous burden, to be sure, but his obsessive love for his art is his primary driving force, as must be the case for all aspiring pro ballet dancers. Only the purest and most powerful of motives will suffice, so physically, emotionally and psychically demanding is the journey.

12yo Miko’s family, by contrast with Joan Sebastian’s, reside in California and are clearly well-off, but the parental expectations are similar. Her Japanese mother lives every second of her daughter’s punishing training program – and that of her ludicrously cute younger son, Jules, until he acknowledges that he lacks the passion to continue (Playstation is more his thing). This tiger-mum is not so selfish or stupid as to impose her dreams on her little boy, and accepts his decision, albeit with some heavy-rolling tears that induced widespread chuckling in my fellow viewers. Oh OK, and me. This is tense stuff and the comic moments come as a welcome relief.

The tension peaks with the competition finals performance of 14yo Michaela, adopted as an orphaned toddler from war-torn Sierra Leone by an American couple. Days out from the competition, she develops acute achilles inflammation, but ignores stern medical advice not to dance, risking career-ending and permanently debilitating injury. It really is all or nothing for Michaela as with bated breath we watch her confront her fate onstage.

Then there is 12yo Aran, whose father is stationed with the American navy in Italy, and proud as punch of his diminutive prodigy – one of several instances of stereotypes thrillingly dismantled in the course of the film. This kid is fascinating: brilliantly talented, a keen skateboarder but almost robotically serious, mature way beyond his tender years and already in his mind’s eye, you fancy, the 21st century Nureyev. There is no hubris here – just a deadly serious intent and a vision that will not be denied. But will he deliver on his dizzy potential in those few moments that count on stage?

And what about his also prodigiously talented “girlfriend”, Gaya, an irresistibly endearing 12yo Israeli girl who doesn’t speak a word of English? Will she get through? Oh, please, let her! Judges, please!

Technically, the film is polished. All elements meld with the harmony and fine balance of, well, a wonderfully choreographed, superbly performed ballet.

The soundtrack ranges from pulsing urban beats to classical ballet excerpts, always in sync with the visuals and human content and never ostentatiously so.

Cameras are fly-on-the-wall unintrusive in the sections of the film recording the remarkably natural interactions between the dancers and their coaches and families (there is no sense of staginess or camera-awareness among the subjects), while the dance sequences are filmed with a wonderful feel for theatrics that brings out the excitement and vibrancy of the kinetic poetry unfolding on the stage.

Even if you care not at all for ballet, this film is enthralling because at its heart is an epic struggle undertaken by young heroes with the guts to dream huge and pursue that dream with every fibre of their being. That’s the greatest of human stories, and these young people are the finest of characters. What the hell more do you want out of a movie?

And if you have kids, take them! There are no better role models on the planet than the young stars of this show.

Review 2: (Karen)
First Position is about competitors in the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition. Not a ballet fan? Don’t dismiss this film! I’m not usually a fan – in fact I’d reassured my companion that we could leave early if the film was boring – but I was riveted from the opening scenes. Director (and co-producer and co-editor) Bess Kargman is a master story-teller. Astonishingly, it’s her first film.

More than doing what good documentary does – that is, give real insight into a particular subject – this utterly enthralling film does what good dramatic fiction and feature films do: it tells a story of people who live in the world, have families and relationships, do certain things for certain reasons, and triumph or fail. There’s humour, suspense, history and love.

People bandy the word “passion” about a lot these days. It’s overused. But passion can be the only reason the children and young adults featured in First Position put themselves through the punishing physical regimes necessary for performing and competing at elite level.

I’m intrigued by how Kargman chose her subjects, Aran, Michaela, Rebecca, Joan, Miko, Jules and Gaya. Did she record material about many more competitors, and then decide what to use? I don’t know the answer to this question; one way or another, though, the result is a fascinating mix of characters and backstories. I defy you to pick a favourite.

Kargman cuts between interviews with and footage of the competitors, their families and teachers, and we get an intimate glimpse into their reasons for dancing, their family situations, and their daily regimes, and along the way, all the “issues” around dance – pushy stage mothers, anorexia, discrimination on the basis of body type, and gender and sexuality – are touched on. The touch is light; the issues are acknowledged and dealt with in a way that is confident without being defensive, no mean feat when such acknowledgement is alongside scenes showing youngsters stretching their bodies at barres, between chairs, and in instruments of torture, that have to be seen to be believed.

It’s genius, really, that she illustrates how “normal” her subjects are. Super-talent Aran is first introduced to us doing boy-stuff, skateboarding, and showing off his BB gun. It’s seeing Aran dance that inspires Gaya to take dance seriously, and their nascent love is a joy to behold. Aran’s dad is in the US military, a bit bemused by his son’s passion for dance, but, typically of the families we meet, happy to make massive adjustments in lifestyle to accommodate it.

The families are all supportive. There only seems to be one tiger mother, and her composed and happy ballerina daughter, Miko, thrives on her attention. It’s Miko’s dream to dance professionally with her younger brother Jules, but mum recognises that Jules’s heart might not really be in dance. It’s moving and enlightening to get a peek into the lives of these endearing people.

Michaela, adopted from war-ravaged Sierra Leone as an infant, wants to challenge the stereotype that African Americans cannot be graceful ballerinas. But she’s built like a sprinter, and she suffers crippling tendonitis just before the big competition, and faces the possibility that she may not be able to dance. Her story is worth a film of its own.

Then there’s Joan Sebastian, from Colombia, away from home and family, and under the greatest pressure of all, as he is constantly reminded that his family is depending on him to win a scholarship and establish a career. He’s beautiful, and sad. I was terrified that he would be mugged or injured, or worse still, lose his passion for the art he was surely made for.

Rebecca, the beautiful “Barbie” with her blonde hair, perfect body and freakish range of movement, lights up the screen, but comes across as unconceited and well-adjusted.

These young people, aged nine to seventeen, are abnormally talented and dedicated, and lucky enough to be able to indulge their passion (if indulge is the right word for all that work); we are lucky enough in this excellent work to go along for the ride, root for them in the competition (I held my breath along with the parents!), and celebrate their achievements.

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3 thoughts on “First Position Movie Review”

  1. So glad you agree, rolanstein, that this film is a cracker. After writing my review, I read a couple of the boards on IMDB, and was astonished to find criticism of Miko and Jules’s mum, who was, I think, despite her obvious ambition for her kids, incredibly reasonable. The critics found her horrible for feeding her children broccoli! And low fat yoghurt! What a monster.

    I really like your question, “What the hell more do you want out of a movie?” I agree. It was a completely satisfying experience.


  2. Hi Karen,

    I don’t understand how anyone could find this film less than enthralling. But…going by good ol’ David and Margaret’s responses on At The Movies last night, it seems they were not as taken with it as you and I. Sometimes I suspect a jaded factor with pro reviewers who do nothing much more than watch and review movies. Whatever…

    Broccoli and low fat yoghurt? Child abuse! Come to think about it, low fat yoghurt…?

    Sure, Miho’s mum could have been perceived, perhaps, as a little over-zealous in her support, but she was giving her all for her kids, and her sensible response to Jules fessing up that he wasn’t all that into ballet demonstrated that it was her kids, not herself, she was putting first. I found her delightful.


  3. Yes, I was a bit perplexed by Margaret and David’s response too. What if Kargman had not had a diverse range of subjects? Presumably they would have criticised her for choosing all white bread, or all ethnic minorities.

    I think they used the word “formulaic” – well if that’s formulaic filmmaking, then why are not all first-time directors following the formula and delivering such thrilling results? Kargman was a dancer herself, so has particular insight into the milieu, and I reckon it shows.

    Hell, I’d love to see a Five-Up series on these kids. Imagine, Joan at 23, at 28, at 33, at 38 – a teacher maybe by then, thrilled, like Aran’s teacher, to have a protege with extraordinary talent. Or Miko, a tiger mum herself, supporting her Olympic skier son! Or whatever. But no kidding, this genre has legs – muscly ones!

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