Worth A Look: 31.58%
Just Average: 15.79%
Pretty Crappy: 0%
4 reviews, 14 user ratings
|Mad Hot Ballroom
by Robert Flaxman
Documentary filmmakers are very good at turning just about any subject you’d care to think of into a metaphor for the American dream. In Marilyn Agrelo’s Mad Hot Ballroom, the subject is the titular ballroom dancing. The children involved come from diverse backgrounds – middle-class, lower-class, white, black, Latino, Asian, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking. The one thing they all have in common is enrollment in a fifth-grade class that, amazingly, is not elective but one they are required to take.Interspersed with the dancing sequences are various interviews with the kids as they expound on their lives, relationships, and ambitions. The children are sincere, but these scenes are really what fill out the film – and give it its humor. Let’s face it – for adults, watching children be very serious about things that only a child could take seriously can be very funny. Entire TV shows have been built around the concept.
"Mad average documentary."
In many ways, Mad Hot Ballroom is just “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” with a framing device. That device – the New York City ballroom dance curriculum and its citywide competition – provides some interest, though there’s little significant drama and seeing the same five dances over and over is a bit repetitive. Really, the last half-hour is so much water-treading, as the narrative has not yet run its course but has ceased to offer us anything new (a half-hearted attempt at making the contest’s defending champions, who aren’t shown at all until late in the film, into quasi-villains of the piece doesn’t work).
The dancing seems mostly like a conduit for Agrelo’s message that engaging children in school is the way to build up the next generation – when children are engaged in school they do better, and that can lead to a better life. It’s a good message, of course, but it’s almost too subtly delivered – the comment on it is, apart from a couple teacher statements, largely implicit. The message all but justifies the film’s lack of significant narrative trajectory, but when the message isn’t being hammered, the narrative is too dry to really support the film.
Still, the kids’ impressions of what it means to grow up and be grown up are amusing enough that the film never loses watchability, even if we have to feel a little guilty for laughing at the kids as much as with them. It’s also unclear what exactly these scenes add to the film’s thesis; they’re certainly acceptable as filler, but only some of the interviews actually feature the children describing potential futures. Other scenes show them talking about members of the opposite sex even as they admit that they’re a little too young to be doing so, or delivering lines about staying away from drugs that would be reassuring if extemporaneous but seem a bit rehearsed. At least Agrelo doesn’t seem mean-spirited in filming the kids’ silliness; they’re young enough that she, and we, can get away with saying that we’re laughing because they’re cute.
Ultimately, the film’s downfall is its repetition. There is a scene in which dance teachers from across the city get together for a meeting that culminates with a spirited dance sequence that ends regrettably quickly. The free-wheeling, cut-loose nature of the teachers is undercut by their students, most of whom are going through the motions for the majority of the film. By the time we reach the end, the children who have advanced all the way are indeed quite competent dancers, but they’re still just doing one of five dances we’ve had drilled into our heads for the entire film. The letter of the dance may be on display, but much of the spirit is missing. The kids only take the class for ten weeks, so perhaps it would be silly to expect more, but the film suffers because of it. The liberation and sheer enjoyment of dancing are hinted at, but actual appearances are rare, giving the proceedings a very clinical, and occasionally even dreary, air.Alternately cute and stultifying, Mad Hot Ballroom is a passable distraction, if little else. Its thesis is neither particularly original nor especially well-delivered, and it manages to let its own subject get boring after a while – but with some genuinely cute moments and a heart that’s in the right place, at least it’s impossible to get too down about that.
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originally posted: 06/22/05 03:05:31
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