The best summer movie you’ll ever see
Summer can be a trying time for people who just can’t get excited about a new Batman movie (all my grousing to the contrary aside, I do understand). I don’t delude myself that Hollywood ever stops playing the numbers game, but during the hottest months they tend to kick it into overdrive, presenting a buffet of movies aimed at little more than filling the seats and overloading the senses. It’s an unlikely time for an independent film to find its audience, with theaters hustling the little films out to make way for the special effects extravaganzas of the moment.
But sometimes the underdog has its day, and the newest word-of-mouth phenomenon couldn’t be more deserving. Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary coasting under the radar into Greensboro’s Carousel Cinema, is a story about preteens at several low-income Manhattan public schools enrolled in, of all things, a ballroom dancing course. Each year, the course culminates in a competition to crown one school’s team as champion. Director Marilyn Agrelo, working with writer/producer Amy Sewell, follows several dozen students and teachers from the beginning of the year through this grand finale. Full of insight and empathy, with so many emotional highs and lows, it’s impossible to leave unaffected by this film.
In fact, you might get immersed just watching the students interact with one another ‘— when you see the awkward kids who can’t dance, you may get a swell of nostalgia for your own awkward phase (or not ‘— but you will remember it). The kids seem almost unaware of the filmmakers’ presence, which couches the film in a firm reality. Agrelo’s camera doesn’t intrude on her subjects, and it doesn’t need to. Her transparent eye catches the most telling aspects of their lives, and it does it to great effect. Though the viewer is constantly aware that many of these children have difficult home lives (in one predominantly Dominican school, 97 percent of the students are on or below the poverty line), she doesn’t exploit their situation for sympathy. Rather, this highlights the force with which the students throw themselves into dancing.
The powerful theme of impending adulthood illuminates everything here; because many of these children are intimately familiar with the harsh realities of adulthood, they consciously give themselves to the experience. Don’t think they don’t know why, either ‘— these kids are wise, and the time spent with them is humbling. This much is evident in the children’s exemplary teachers. One scene, in which a teacher begins to cry at the thought of her students becoming adults, elicited some nervous laughter from the audience with whom I watched it. But to be fair, it’s such a nakedly beautiful moment it’s hard to know how to respond. And it’s one of many.
Mad Hot Ballroom is a celebration of music and dance, and an affirmation of how they bridge gaps in culture, language, and social class. Just watch Wilson, the new kid at school who speaks almost no English, become the hero of his team through his preternatural mastery of Meringue, Rumba, and the Tango ‘— you have to see it to believe it. In fact, it’s impossible to do any of it justice in words. This film is uplifting, focused, and unerringly brilliant. Experience it before it’s crowded out by a louder, emptier movie.
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