People entering talent-based competitions by the thousand isn’t remarkable anymore to most of those who are interested in such shows; from “American Idol” to “So You Think You Can Dance?” chronicle the vast numbers of hopefuls who dream of garnering enough favor with the public so that they might have a shot at being an artist. First Position, the first documentary from director Bess Kargman, is kind of like that – but to consider the stakes of the respective contestants would be plain and simple injustice. Ballet is a niche industry that is incredibly tough to break into, an art form that takes the ideals of skill mastery and discipline to a whole other level. The entries into the Youth America Grand Prix are all between the ages of nine and nineteen, Position following the participation of six those dancers, who have already made their career decision of be professional dancers before they graduate, and in some cases before they reach, high school.
The kids in the film represent a variety of backgrounds. Rebecca is the spoiled princess and former cheerleader looking to make it into a professional company; Aran is the military-brat living in Italy hoping to gain serious recognition at age eleven; Miko and Jules Fogarty are brother and sister who are driven to success by their regiment-imposing mother, Miko the more promising and serious ballerina and Jules the silly little brother along for the ride; Joan Sebastian is a sixteen year-old immigrant from Colombia who moved to New York is hopes his talent will bring him not only happiness but a steady income; Michaela fights against the stereotypes being adopted by a white family after being rescued from war-torn Sierra Leone. Despite the formulaic nature of the movie, the kids provide massive energy to the film. Watching them practice and perform is not only thrilling but also joyful – seeing passion like this at such an early age is, though perhaps cliché, a reward in its own right.
Position is a rudimentary first effort at filmmaking on Kargman’s part, but her fundamentals are solid enough to let the film wax over into gimmick territory. On the whole the film leaves a lot to be desired, as the subjects are only ever really shown in the context of being dancers. There is a moment when the audience is first introduced to Aran, who seems like a regular kid as he displays his favorite toys, like a bee-bee gun, to the camera until he pulls out a number of strange apparatuses meant to strengthen his dancing skills, like a foot-stretcher that looks decidedly painful. More moments like these, and not just home and bedroom tours, would have humanized the narrative and bumped up the relatability factor to a whole new level. The fortune of this film ultimately rests entirely on the great kids it focuses on, but would have been something truly noteworthy had we really gotten a chance to know them as people and not just as dancers, though that part of them is fantastic enough to fill up a satisfying hour and thirty minutes of movie.