"Mad Hot Ballroom", the new documentary about fifth graders from New York Public Schools who compete in ballroom dancing competitions, desperately wants to be the next "Spellbound".
Concentrating on teams from three schools; a school in Tribeca, a school from another part of Manhattan and a school from Brooklyn, we meet the teachers in charge of each of these programs and learn a little about the creation of the program. A brief interview with one of the administrators extols the virtues of teaching the students ballroom dancing, especially at the fifth grade level. As the programs continue, the students practice the Tango, the Rumba, the Foxtrot, the Merengue, Swing and other dances. As competition looms, the teachers have to decide which of the students will represent their teams in specific dances.
"Ballroom" is a pleasant diversion, but it fails to deliver anything of meaningful value as either a narrative or a documentary. "Spellbound", the documentary about students competing in the National Spelling Bee, was a great, suspenseful story following the lives of a number of the participants. The key difference between the two is that "Spellbound" followed a select group of the participants, to their homes, interacting with their parents, at school. We learned what made these kids tick. In "Ballroom", there is a key scene about halfway through. We see a couple of the parents, for the first time, as they pick their kids up and drive off with them. Or we see one of the dads roller skating with his son. Most of the parents are on screen for a fraction of a second, if that.
The film's focus is too broad. After the initial introduction to the three classrooms, we meet some of the students; at times they are talking to the camera, during others, we eavesdrop on their conversations with their friends. These conversations are interesting; they talk about boys and girls, their parents, older kids who get into drugs, their hopes, etc., but because we are watching so many kids, we don't get a true feeling for what makes any one of them tick. The names of the students pop up more than once when they are on camera. Even this doesn't help us truly identify the kids because we never spend enough time with them. Only later, when only one of the schools is left in the competition do we begin to remember who they are.
There are two groups at the center of this film. The students and their teachers. The two teachers supervising the Brooklyn program are given more screen time. The male teacher is clearly into the program and really wants to help these kids learn these dance moves. All of the adult supervisors seem to believe that the program helps the kids learn social skills, etiquette, deportment, responsibility and more. About halfway through the training, his female counterpart takes center stage, training the students, teaching them discipline, and more. In fact, the male teacher disappears for a long stretch of time, only to reappear during the beginning of the competition. Because of this shift, we don't really get a feeling about what makes these people tick either.
The adults at the other two schools; the Tribeca program is run by a middle-aged man with an accent and his younger, more `touchy-feely' female counterpart and I can't honestly remember the people who supervised the other school's program, aren't developed at all.
Why didn't the filmmakers explore the backgrounds or lives of anyone in the film? Without an emotional heart at the center of either group, the film ultimately becomes an empty excuse for watching the kids dance. Are we supposed to find it amusing? Touching? Hard work? It is difficult to say. Without a central core of characters to identify with, we can't really determine the purpose or drive behind the film.
Ultimately, as all films of this type must, everything comes down to a final competition. One of the three schools goes to this competition, and they are quite good. When their team gets up to do the Rumba or the Merengue, the students jump up and down with excitement because the kids are good, very good. But I didn't jump up and down with excitement, because I didn't know the kids, or empathize with them. I didn't care if they did a good job or not.
If we don't know the kids, or the teachers, or what is at stake for either, why should we care about the outcome of the competition? Why should you go to see "Mad Hot Ballroom"?