Confident feature debut for directors Mike Cahill and Brit Marling, “Boxers and Ballerinas” is a sharp-eyed docu contrasting the lots of young athletes and artists as Cubans and Cuban-Americans. Non-polemical, yet offering a fair share of political commentary between the lines, entertaining piece should easily parlay travel as a fest crowd-pleaser into broadcast and possible specialized-theatrical exposure.
Themselves just in their early 20s, co-helmers reveal the geographically short but socio-politically wide gap between contempo Cuba and the U.S. while focusing on four gifted protags. On the island, there’s 17-year-old Yordenis, a boxer who hopes to qualify for the next Olympics; and 19-year-old Annia, already a company member of the Radio and Television Ballet.
In Cuban expat capital Miami, 20-year-old Sergio is being trained under a former Cuban Olympics boxing coach. Twenty-one-year-old Paula hopes to follow in the toesteps of her mother, Rosario Suarez, a celebrated prima ballerina with the National Ballet de Cuba, who defected in 1994.
Despite superficial similarities, the quartet’s hopes exist in very different circumstances largely determined by nationality and related issues. In trade embargoed Cuba, where the standard of living is mediocre but pretty much fairly spread among citizenry, talented aspirants and professionals in sports and the arts are supported as regular full-time government workers.
Still, their rewards for excellence are minute compared with those afforded star performers in the States, making it very tempting to defect while on tour. Anti-Castro forces in Miami view each defection as a triumph for their cause, while Cuba’s government struggles to contain the exodus by limiting travel abroad. After two more leading dancers seek asylum in the U.S., the reaction back home is to indefinitely postpone a tour in Mexico to which Annia had much looked forward.
On the other hand, American-style freedom to realize one’s dreams doesn’t come cheap, with government funding for sports and arts barely extant. Sergio can’t afford the luxury of being an Olympics hopeful. He must turn pro as soon as possible to support the family, especially once his dad gets laid off. Paula is aware that, even at her young age, time is running out on her potential to make it as a dancer. Even her famous parent, considered a celebrity by the expat community, can’t raise enough money to sustain a new company. Paula is torn between hoping to win a professional berth at a prestigious ballet outfit far from home, and staying in Miami to help her mother.
Impressive lensing, editing and sound-design contribs keep the seemingly endless Cold War hangover of Cuba-U.S. political issues buzzing in the background, providing a larger context to the engrossing tension that builds over individual protags’ fortunes.
Running thread throughout is remembrance of the 1976 midair explosion of a Cuban airliner, which killed almost 100 (including 20 young Cuban athletes). Docu notes the acknowledged bomber was hailed as a hero by many expats — then, years later, was freed from prison by a general pardon from the first President Bush.