MAD HOT BALLROOM (Marilyn Agrelo, 2005)
MAD HOT BALLROOM documents precocious fifth graders in the New York public school system learning how to dance and the teachers who are passionate about the Dancing Classrooms program. It's exactly the sort of film for which "feel-good" and "crowd-pleasing" were intended. At the risk of sounding like a grouch, I was bored more than I was charmed.
Director Marilyn Agrelo tracks the progress at schools in Bensonhurst, Tribeca, and Washington Heights as the students learn ballroom dances in preparation for the citywide competition. The children are taught the tango, rumba, swing, foxtrot, and merengue. More than sixty schools take part in the contest, but the purpose of the program isn't winning a trophy but exposing the children to the arts and instilling confidence and discipline.
Dancing is MAD HOT BALLROOM'S focus, but Agrelo also observes how the kids, on the cusp of interest in dating, grow into their gender roles. The fifth graders are still young enough that they don't seem self-conscious in front of the camera or around one another, but most acknowledge, often in humorous ways, that they're aware of the feelings that they have for members of the opposite sex. The girls seem savvier than the boys, which, as loquacious fifth grader Emma would tell you, shouldn't come as a surprise.
Unlike SPELLBOUND, another documentary about children in competition, MAD HOT BALLROOM doesn't acquaint us very well with the kids. Many are interviewed, and some stand out more than others. The uncommonly serious Cyrus, theory-filled Emma, and Wilson, the smoothest of all the dancers, make the strongest impressions, but we get to know them as types more than as individuals.
MAD HOT BALLROOM falls into the trap that the teachers avoid. The competition becomes the center of attention, and that's when the film falls into a numbing repetition. Since three schools' progress must be followed, we see each competing in the rounds leading up to and including the finals. At the finals Agrelo shows each dance more or less in its entirety, the alternates getting their chance to shine, and then the dance-off to determine the winner among the three finalists awarded the gold level of achievement. With school funding crises forcing districts to chop arts programs, it's understandable why Agrelo would want to show Dancing Classrooms' impact on these children, but at 110 minutes, the film is much longer than it needs to be. The kids are cute and the intentions are good, but ultimately MAD HOT BALLROOM plays like a teacher's presentation to the school board about the importance of arts education.
(Review originally appeared in a slightly different form as part of my Deep Focus Film Fest day 3 coverage)