But you promised me heartbreak!

(very lightly edited for clarity) Last night I saw First Position, a new documentary on young ballet dancers competing in the Youth America Grand Prix. It’s from a first-time director, it’s a labor of love, and the kids are unspeakably endearing. It’s a feel-good film, which means there are no villains. Not the rich girl whose classmates nickname her “Barbie,” who has half-a-dozen “PRINCESS” signs on her bedroom walls, but who seems genuinely hardworking, grateful for her opportunities, aware of her responsibilities, and sweet-natured. Not the kid who stands up to his Tiger Mom and says he doesn’t enjoy ballet, who is never shown whining or discouraged even when his teacher rolls his eyes and criticizes him pretty sharply, but instead seems sunny and willing to work hard at just about anything other than ballet. Even the Tiger Mom and the fierce teacher are portrayed sympathetically.

This aspect of the film, I loved. I wish there were more scenes of how ballet classes and physical development work, but what we got was pretty great. And the kids were all incredibly easy to root for.

But–and spoiler warning, I suppose–the film’s feel-good aspects become overwhelming by the end. It’s not just the saccharine incidental music. It’s the fact that every single kid, except the one kid who actively chooses to quit ballet, reaps some kind of tangible reward or honor from the competition. We’re constantly told that this competition is so huge and intense that you can be incredibly talented, hardworking, and passionate, and still walk away with nothing except the hunger to try again next year–but we never actually see that.

This NYT article, which may not be accurate (I haven’t watched either show), contrasts Friday Night Lights favorably with Glee, in part due to the former’s ability to portray disappointment as well as triumph. First Position‘s “nobody cries for long” ending means that the movie, for me, swayed too far into the Glee end of the spectrum.

About Eve Tushnet

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