The rigors of ballet training are fierce: foot sores, medieval stretches, a near-complete sacrifice of a young person’s free time. Easier, less costly ways must exist for a teen to learn of her darkening economic prospects than entering the Youth America Grand Prix, a top-flight international competition for dance scholarships and recognition. But enter they do: First Position follows six hopefuls, ranging from 14-year-old Michaela—a Sierra Leone–born Philadelphia adoptee who longs to fit her body into a rarefied form—to 17-year-old Rebecca—a self-described “princess” who seems born to get her lithe, blond way with things. Little kids, barely pubescent, home in on the action as well; it’s hard to limit your rooting interest to just one tutu-clad tyke.
Still, this material could have been assembled into a more creative and suspenseful narrative. (So you think you can make a dance movie that isn’t a clone of Fame or the geek-adorkable Spellbound?) Children twirl, cheekbones jutting out with drive, while trainers and parents yell off camera, a cello-supplanted, minor-key soundtrack providing instant ambition. Everything leads up to the big event, where little goes down that you haven’t already guessed. Director Bess Kargman, herself a former ballerina, deserves credit for capturing key performance moments that allow us to come to a finer appreciation of the art form (grace isn’t just a matter of speed or softness, but attitude). Yet she hasn’t taken the risks her subjects do; the doc feels preprogrammed when it could have been a real-life Black Swan.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf