Any biopic of a great artist in any discipline tends to wrestle with the same problem: that the artist’s life, eventful though it may be, is usually less immersively interesting than their very best art. In the case of Cuban ballet superstar Carlos Acosta, the promise of watching his rise — from an impoverished childhood on the outskirts of Havana to 17 years as a principal dancer at London’s Royal Ballet — enacted by less miraculously gifted performers isn’t quite as enticing as the spectacle of that extraordinary body in motion. So it’s to the credit of Iciar Bollain’s devoted Acosta portrait “Yuli” that it effectively owns up to that issue, and does some fancy structural footwork of its own to get around it: Part straightforward biographical drama, part interpretive dance piece, it resourcefully allows Acosta to narrate his story with movement rather than speech, while two young actors play out the past in more prosaic fashion.
The result is a typically thoughtful, ambitious storytelling exercise from Spanish helmer Iciar Bollain, working once more in partnership with her screenwriter husband Paul Laverty. (Laverty, for his part, toys with more kitsch devices than he’d ever attempt in his signature social-realist collaborations with Ken Loach.) If “Yuli” is almost inevitably uneven, with not all its pirouetting parts falling into formation, it’s a consistently colorful hybrid: stirring when it leans into sentimental traditionalism, actively ravishing when it lets Acosta’s physical artistry take over, and faltering mostly when it tries to bridge the two, particularly in a rushed second half. Notwithstanding such caveats, “Yuli” promises to be a major crowdpleaser on the festival circuit following its warmly received San Sebastián premiere; noting comparison points to both “Pina” and “Billy Elliot,” distributors should line up at the barre.
Fandom of, or even familiarity with, Acosta’s work isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying a film that, accurately or otherwise, shapes his life story into a classical rags-to-riches (or at least street-to-stage) arc. Laverty’s script, drawn from Acosta’s own memoir, doesn’t shy away from cornily romanticized talk of following your star and art being your home. The welcome twist is that such sentiments tend to be imposed on our hero by others; they’re actively resisted by the younger incarnations of Acosta, who regards his dancing ability as a burden rather than a gift to build a dream on.
A picture-postcard opening sees the real-life Acosta driving to a present-day appointment at the Cuban National Ballet, gazing beatifically upon Havana’s sidewalks — sweepingly shot as a series of iridescent urban vistas by d.p. Alex Catalán — as he passes. He’s there to rehearse with younger dancers in a show based on his life, setting in motion a metatextual framing device that works best in its dancing-only stretches, minus some hokey dialogue between the master and his protégés about the nature of reality. Rewinding from there to the early 1980s, the film gains some grit in the irresistible form of newcomer Edilson Manuel Olbera Núñez as the pre-teen Carlos, nicknamed “Yuli” at home, whose release from a deprived, sometimes abusive domestic life comes through Michael Jackson-inspired dance-offs with other neighborhood kids.
It’s a pastime that enrages Acosta’s disciplinarian truck-driver father Pedro (Santiago Alfonso, himself a celebrated Cuban dancer and choreographer), who resolves that if his boy must dance, he must do it properly, forcibly hauling him off to the National Ballet School to audition. Despite his reluctance to “wear panty-tights like those faggots there,” the kid’s natural ability impresses future mentor Chery (Laura De La Uz) into offering him a scholarship; as much as the rebellious adolescent Acosta tries to resist the pull of his talent, it’s clear that the rhythm — as fellow Cuban cultural export Gloria Estefan would concur — is inevitably gonna get him. Limber, lively and kissed with sly comic timing, Núñez is such a terrific find that the film is set somewhat off-balance when he departs, passing the baton to the fleet-footed but less dynamic Keyvin Martinez (a dancer in Acosta’s own company) as the young-adult Carlos.
“Yuli’s” dramatized portions grow less inspired as it starts simply stamping its hero’s passport and checking off professional milestones: winning the gold medal at the Prix du Lausanne, residencies at the English National Ballet, the National Ballet of Cuba and Houston Ballet, with a protracted episode of anguished soul-searching in Havana along the way. Where Bollain and Laverty can find time between these episodes, complexities of identity and conflict within Acosta’s mixed-race family are filled in with a broad brush, partially explaining why Pedro, as a black descendant of slaves, is so persistently hard on his so. It’s these nuances, however, that feel most squeezed by the film’s tidy 109-minute running time, while the characters of Acosta’s mother and sisters are all but written out of proceedings.
As it goes on, “Yuli” works best when its feet do the talking, through several exquisitely choreographed interludes where Acosta and his young company dance out his daddy issues and his equally complicated relationship with his muse. One of these, in which Acosta assumes the role of his father, bound in a tender pas de deux with a younger version of himself, is as moving as any of the film’s more conventional tearjerker tactics. It’s in these passages, too, where the film’s high-end production values (most notably Catalán’s lithe lensing and a lush score by Alberto Iglesias) are most creatively deployed. Even so, when it comes to the crowning glory of Acosta’s career — becoming the first person of color to dance Romeo at the Royal Ballet — “Yuli” is wise to revert to archive footage, however grainy it may be by comparison. There’s simply no glossy substitute for Acosta’s sheer bodily genius.