Notwithstanding childhood beauty pageants that are somewhat creepy in their objectification and even sexualization of young girls, it's often fun to see kids doing adult things. I'm not talking about sexual matters, bad habits or potentially dangerous or unlawful activities.
Instead, I'm referring to behavior that's normally associated with adults rather than kids, resulting in something of a Mini-Me attraction. It's also good to see something that inspires kids, makes them grow up just a bit and instills confidence in their otherwise poor or disadvantaged lives.
One need look no further than "Mad Hot Ballroom" to get an entertaining and joyous example of both. A documentary about a school program designed to give inner-city kids something different in their lives, the film is an upbeat and uplifting look at such measures. How appropriate then that it's all about teaching kids ballroom dancing.
Since 1994, the American Ballroom Theater's Dancing Classrooms has provided schools in the New York City area with dance instructors whose goals -- over a ten week program -- is to teach 11-year-old boys and girls the finer art of dances such as the rumba, tango, foxtrot, merengue and even some swing dancing. Of course, it's about more than just that, as the program also instills confidence, maturity and a sense of purpose in the kids from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom have never experienced any of those positive attributes.
Documentary filmmakers Marilyn Agrelo (director) and Amy Sewell (writer) follow the kids and instructors in three of the participating schools and let their subjects tell their story. That not only makes the effort a true documentary, but it also removes any apparent social or political stance that many so-called contemporary documentaries now proudly wear on their sleeves.
The fun is in watching the kids learn these otherwise foreign dance steps (to street savvy or sheltered children) and then becoming proficient with them, as well as hearing the instructors and their stated goals for the kids in various one on one interviews.
The filmmakers also let the kids -- who surprisingly aren't self-conscious of or mugging in front of the camera (a favorite pastime of that age) -- be kids. And since they're in that just before puberty stage, their observations about the opposite sex (always told in group sittings where others of their gender agree, disagree or make fun of them depending on their experiences) are funny, entertaining and sometimes highly insightful.
The film is obviously being compared to "Spellbound" -- the documentary about kids participating in spelling bee competitions -- and rightly so. They both share similar documentary filmmaking styles and show what such extracurricular work does for the kids as well as what they bring to it. The end result is just as entertaining, and by the time the real competition begins and the teams start being whittled down, you may just be surprised how engaged you are in the outcome as you're rooting for your favorites that you've "adopted" over the 100-some minute runtime.
Having taken a multi-week ballroom dancing course before my wedding many eons ago -- where each week we learned a different dance, only to have them all become jumbled in my head by the time the big day rolled around -- I can easily related to what the kids are going through. Yet, with the usual childhood reactions to such matters (where it's easier to learn as a kid than an adult), they obviously did much better than yours truly.
In fact, in the final showdown -- where the kids participate in their strongest dance but must know all of them just in case they're called upon to perform -- some of them are so good that it's rather amazing to behold. And entertaining. And moving.
If you need an antidote to all of the big Hollywood blockbusters that try so hard to make you care about their characters, you may want to check out this delightful and quite enjoyable offering where such interest effortlessly glides forth, much like the juvenile dancers highlighted in it.