Ballet is hard enough; try dancing with your family’s future on the line. Those are the stakes in this documentary about two teens from the favelas of Rio, both of whom are on the verge of becoming world-class ballerinas. The film follows a familiar, foolproof formula: Alternate between candid home footage and nail-biting dance competitions, so the viewer is primed for success and misfortune. But what’s unique to Beadie Finzi’s debut feature is what it reveals about the financial, physical and emotional costs of talent.
The first dancer, Irlan Santo da Silva, possesses an otherwordly carriage that distinguishes his gifts even to unskilled eyes; he’s got the ambition and the cojones to perform a Nijinsky suicide pantomime at his biggest audition. As for Isabela Coracy Alves Nascimento Santos, her dreams have already been compromised by her dark skin and normal (read: non-anorexic) figure. Yet the film’s real stars are their respective parents, all hardworking clock-punchers who treat their kids’ talent as a miracle worthy of infinite sacrifice and innumerable bank loans. An instructor claims that the best dancers often come from the slums, “because they want it more.” But Only When I Dance shows that all the tenacity and class-jumping in the world can’t triumph within a discipline that traditionally denies diversity.—Eric Hynes