Mad Hot Ballroom

on May 13, 2005 by Ray Greene
The iconoclastic Slamdance Festival, a mutation of the Sundance approach formulated as a trendier and more extreme alternative to the alternative, defied expectations by launching its 2005 slate with an evening of gentility and grace. "Mad Hot Ballroom," a new documentary and the Slamdance opener, walks (or rather meringues, tangos and swings) in the footsteps of "Spellbound" with a riveting and extremely entertaining look at a citywide dance competition for adolescents sponsored by New York's public school system.

Imagine schools where the teachers care so much about their students that they burst into tears when they talk about their hopes for the children's future. Director Marilyn Agrelo and writer Amy Sewell gained the access and the trust to tell the story of that kind of dedication, and are smart enough as filmmakers to recognize that the real drama faced by these extraordinarily expressive and articulate kids isn't about the dancing itself, but about experiencing puberty and other adolescent challenges in the context of some of the most romantic patterns of movement ever devised for the human body. Focusing on three New York schools featuring a mix of racial and ethnic types, filmmaker Agrelo is always where the action is, whether lingering over the forms of awkward young dancers struggling toward moments of ecstasy and grace or focusing in on the intimate private conversations that girls and boys hold about each other.

When one of the featured teams fails to make it past an elimination round in the first stage of the city competition and dissolves in its entirety into tears, Agrelo's camera caresses both the children and the teacher who tries to console them only to begin weeping herself. In tragicomic moments like this, "Mad Hot Ballroom" becomes a paean to the essential goodness of so many unsung heroes of American education, and to the frailty of the innocence all children carry with them.

The presumably edgy Slamdance crowd broke into spontaneous applause at least seven times during this film's inaugural screening, which says a lot about the movie's crossover appeal. The "Spellbound" comparison is inevitable (and, like that earlier work, "Mad Hot Ballroom" could use to lose around 20 minutes--it's a film with a few too many climaxes for its own good). But "Mad Hot Ballroom" is its own film, itself an act of love and dedication as well as a film about love and dedication. Directed by Marilyn Agrelo. Written by Amy Sewell. Produced by Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell. A Paramount Classics release. Documentary. Rated PG for some thematic elements. Running time: 110 min

Tags: Marilyn Agrelo, Amy Sewell. documentary, dance, children, school

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