“Mad Hot Ballroom” is as lovely and sweet a film as any that unspooled in January at Park City. That it preemed at Slamdance rather than Sundance proved a coup for the upstart fest, whose opening night platform set the stage for Paramount Classics’$4 million pickup. Perky and effortlessly smooth docu, about Gotham tweens in a citywide ballroom dancing competition and in the caring adults who surround them, looks to score biz along the lines of a “Spellbound,” with which it shares an emotional interest in public school students.
At its heart, the pic is about the making of “little ladies and gentlemen,” in the words of teary-eyed teacher Allison Sheniak of PS 150 in Tribeca. But it’s all much less square than it sounds, since director Marilyn Agrelo is able to capture with easy charm and grace what happens between 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls as they break out of their childhood shells and interact with each other — and surprise themselves with abilities they didn’t know they had.
Sheniak’s group, guided by patient dance coach Alex Tchassov, appears to be a typical cross-section of students, some extremely engaged (Tara Devon Gallagher practices devotedly in front of her bedroom mirror) and others who couldn’t care less.
Teacher Yomaira Reynoso’s competing group at PS 115 in Washington Heights (coached by Rodney Lopez) has far fewer resources and many more at-risk kids, but is bubbling with talent and has also nearly won the city’s top prize before.
And kids at PS 112 in Bensonhurst, far from being contenders, seem to be dancing for fun, encouraged by their energetic principal Louise Verdemare, who profoundly sums up ballroom dancing’s value : “It’s more than learning steps … it’s etiquette … it’s life.” Taha Natab, at the ethnically diverse 112, says his Islamic sect prohibits dancing, but he still helps out by spinning the music to dances ranging from merengue and rumba to foxtrot, swing and tango.
Docu takes great joy in the people it films, allowing kids to be themselves at school and home (where the boys and girls let their hair down and say what they really think about the other sex) and showing, even more than “Spellbound,” just how important teachers are.Pic tends to soften the dangerous lives of the kids at 115, in a poor area of mostly Dominican Republic emigres, but it also shows that, even at age 10, these little ones are fully aware of the risks around them and are driven to succeed, and avoid drugs and crime.
“Mad Hot” also reps a new trend in Yank non-fiction to depict characters in competition leading up to a main event, which here takes up the pic’s entire second half.
Besides getting a bevy of cute shots of kids awkwardly trying to coordinate with each other, Agrelo couldn’t have been luckier with story’s Hollywood ending, imbued with a sense that what’s being observed isn’t just kids winning or losing, but lives being saved from the mean streets.
Bright production package is distinguished by Claudia Raschke-Robinson’s ultra-clean vid lensing and an editing job by Sabine Krayenbuhl that’s as smooth and crafty as the best foxtrot move.