A diamond in the rough is elevated from poverty, taken under the wing of a taskmaster, schooled in rarefied classical technique, and escapes fate to become prodigal, inspiring greatness in friends and family back home. Aided significantly by its subject’s sincerity and talent and a supporting cast of ballet luminaries, director Anne Bass’s portrait of Cambodian-born dancer Sokvannara Sar mostly cheats this minefield of clichés despite painting it by numbers.
The doc’s core is Sar’s relationship with teacher Olga Kostritzky, who, after Sar is initially denied entrance to the School of American Ballet, brings him up to speed in a matter of months. (As a former student of Kostritzky’s, I can attest that this feat, while dubious, is indeed possible.) Sar finds work with Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, reaches the semifinal round at the “ballet Olympics” in Varna, Bulgaria, and shares a stage in Vail with Philip Glass; as PNB artistic director Peter Boal puts it, his story had a one in a thousand chance of working out, and did.
Bass herself discovered Sar at a Khmer folk-dance performance during a trip to Siem Reap, brought him to the U.S., presumably underwrote his private lessons, and produced this documentary, but doesn’t much get into why; her film moves the most when Sar wonders aloud about the path she placed him on.