"First Position": "Spellbound" for the "Swan Lake" Set

The nonfiction formula pioneered by Spellbound leads to frustrating superficiality in First Position, a glossy documentary about a multicultural collection of young ballet dancers striving to secure awards, scholarships, and job contracts at the prestigious annual Youth America Grand Prix. Director Bess Kargman adheres to a now-familiar template in which glib portraits of various talented kids from around the world provide human-interest background for the central competition, which in this instance is a vital gateway to an adult artistic career. From adopted Sierra Leone orphan Michaela and Colombian-born Joan Sebastian to military-family prodigy Aran and brother-sister duo Jules and Miko, Kargman's subjects are a uniformly gifted and engaging group. However, their home lives and struggles with a variety of relevant issues — racism, peer discrimination born from gender stereotypes, injuries, anorexia, and the personal and monetary sacrifices made by both children and their parents to chase this dream — are given little more than cursory lip service. The result is a film that eschews in-depth insight in favor of easily digestible who's-going-to-win suspense, a tack that's aided by Kargman's rather poignant (and visually graceful) evocation of performance anxiety, but ultimately leaves the material feeling deflated once the winners emerge.

 
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