Mad Hot Ballroom Movie Review

The children-in-competition documentary is beginning to have enough examples to deserve its own genre. From Hoop Dreams to Spellbound, documentary filmmakers seem obsessed with the drive, determination, and borderline abuse that surrounds these kids and their parents. Now that camera is turned on the most grueling, cutthroat arena to which children have ever been subjected: ballroom dance. Actually, Mad Hot Ballroom is a charming tale about adding a little class to the lives of New York City public schoolchildren.

The film follows three teams, each representing public schools from different boroughs. The fourth and fifth graders on each team learn five dances: the foxtrot, meringue, tango, rumba, and swing. Their teachers try to instill presentation from day one. Little things like posture and tucking in your shirt. Over the course of ten weeks they train and compete to be the one school out of 60 to win the Challenge Trophy at the Colors of the Rainbow Finals in Manhattan.

The film's most interesting scenes come not on the dance floor, however, but on the streets and in the homes of these children as they talk about their lives. They chat about dance, of course, but mostly they talk about what it's like to be a kid: what boys they like, what girls they like, their future, their parents, and trying to grow up clean in a crooked neighborhood. They also cover the gamut from architecture to gay marriage.

The film also touches on the various benefits the program has for the children. They learn about different cultures; each dance comes from a different part of the world. They acquire skills usually reserved for their middle class counterparts. It seems to have an impact on some students who stop showing up in the principal's office after taking the class. Instructors like Rodney Lopez become like father figures, showing the children, especially the boys, that it's okay to express their artistic impulses. The "dance: my anti-drug" message comes through without a lot of browbeating.

Visually, however, the film is not very impressive. The video seems a little flat, and with the exception of one very clever edit, not much cinematic effort is made to engage the audience. That's left to the kids who, for the most part, are up to the task. But after a while seeing the same dances - even with improvement and upped antes - gets a little tiresome.

Somehow, the film also lacks the tension that marks a movie like Spellbound, where we become so wrapped up in the kids' lives that each word becomes a time bomb. Here, the competitions are important, but we achieve a pleasant smile when the outcome is good and maybe an "aww" when they fail.

Agrelo makes some unpredictable choices, like showing us the meeting of the teacher's council that discusses the competition. When it's over, they throw down and dance themselves, a testament to how much they love what they do. We're also shown the aftermath of defeat, as the movie continues to follow one team even after they lose a key competition.

Probably the most inspiring moments come when we see the impact of the training on the children's lives. Not just in competition, where a flourish taught by one teacher shows up with effortless grace, but in their daily lives. On the playground, with anything in the world to do, a few of the children actually start practicing, mimicking their teacher's "five, six, seven, eight..." count-off. Mad Hot Ballroom shows us that given the chance, some kids really do just want to have good, clean fun.

Reviewed at the 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival.


Comments

Mad Hot Ballroom Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG, 2005

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