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The Young and the Damned

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The kids who have it hard in Bess Kargman’s documentary First Position have chosen (or been thrust into) one of civilization’s most unnatural modes of expression: ballet, in which bodies are wrenched and twisted and molded to do what bodies weren’t designed to do—and in the process enlarge our sense of possibilities. This is yet another competition doc in the unending legacy of Spellbound, but Kargman is light on her feet, and she has chosen to follow a fascinating group of kids preparing for the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix. There’s an 11-year-old Navy brat already so airy and precise that he has only a glancing acquaintance with gravity and an adorably nimble half-­Japanese American girl who doesn’t mind a bit that her mother has rearranged her (and her family’s) life to make her training paramount. At the heart of the film is Michaela, a muscular black girl with vitiligo adopted from Sierra Leone after her biological parents died in a civil war—and who once saw a swan-necked ballerina on a magazine cover and thought she looked so “happy on her toes.” Her Jewish parents often hear that black girls aren’t built for classical ballet, and Michaela doesn’t, I have to say, seem a likely candidate in repose. But when you see her spin en pointe, you’ll find yourself believing that a child’s hopeful spirit can triumph over the physical world—and maybe even that passing bullet trains can make wishes come true.

I Wish
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda.
Magnolia. PG.

Girl in Progress
Directed by Patricia Riggen.
Pantelion. PG-13.

Small, Beautifully Moving Parts
Directed by Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson.
Long Shot Factory. NR.

First Position
Directed by Bess Kargman.
Sundance Selects. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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