Film Reviews: Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Mad Hot Ballroom
Starring Rodney Lopez, Victoria Malvagno, Yomaira Reynoso, Allison Sheniak, and Alex Tchassov. Directed by Marilyn Agrelo. Written by Amy Sewell. Rated PG.
Tripped Up

Mad Hot Ballroom follows fifth-graders ballroom dancing — and that’s about it.


Not a lot of kids can act well anymore. All of the more busy ones can deliver lines cleverly, but most of the youngsters always seem too aware of their roles as actors to allow any inkling of bona fide sincerity to seep through.
It wasn’t always this way. There were, if not a lot of great child actors back in the day, at least a lot of great performances by child actors, including Jackie Coogan’s orphan in The Kid, Patty McCormack’s wild child in The Bad Seed, and Tatum O’Neal’s hustler in Paper Moon. But ever since the rise of MTV Nation, in which every kid with a cute smile (or his mom) thinks he has what it takes to star opposite Bruce Willis, the craft of acting has taken a back seat to merely being popular. (What hell hath wrought the Olsen twins?)
The demise of the child actor is a shame. Kids are part of the fabric of everyday life, and eliminating them from movies due to lack of skills would make for some highly unrealistic cinematic fare.
Thank goodness for the rise in the documentary form. Over the past few years, a couple of docs have managed to capture kids in all of their brilliant/sad/crazy glory. In following eight adolescents at the Scripps-Howard national spelling bee, Jeffrey Blitz’ Spellbound told an irresistibly bittersweet tale about being young, exceptionally bright, and somewhat sadly trapped in a world of overbearing parents and brutal academia. In To Be and To Have, documentarian Nicolas Philibert captured a heartwarming relationship between a French elementary-school teacher and one of his troubled pupils.
Films like these have delivered refreshingly honest takes on children and have allowed kids to act like ... kids. But if one particular new documentary is a barometer, the same sort of disease that hampers children as players and subjects in fictional yarns may also be affecting docs.
Marilyn Agrelo’s directorial debut, Mad Hot Ballroom, certainly tries to give an honest, unpretentious, unbiased look at ballroom dancing for fifth-graders in post-9/11 New York. The director focuses on three multi-ethnic classes of 11-year-olds who sweat their bottoms off, tangoing all over town, chiefly at schools and competitions. Interspersed amid the footage of fleet feet a-flying are close looks at the relationships between some of the aspiring Johnny Travoltas and J. Los, and testimonials from teachers and parents about, yep, how great ballroom dancing is.
Not that every documentary has to grind some axe or even acknowledge the era’s cultural climate, but Mad Hot Ballroom almost goes to great lengths to avoid talking about the outside world. Agrelo’s negligence is thrown into relief by the fact that she stumbles on — and totally ignores — potentially great sub-stories, like the one about the two students who are stuck in a compulsory class and sit out because dancing is against their religion — they opt to deejay instead. Then there’s the one about Jonathan, an obviously troubled youngster who cops a bunch of attitude throughout before eventually walking out the door for good. Why? Where does he go? What’s happening with him? Agrelo doesn’t deign to find out.
Talking about the outside world may be why some good recent docs are good. You can bet that Spellbound probably wouldn’t have been as powerful (or enjoyable) had the director merely concentrated his camera only on the kiddos’ pronunciations of six-dollar words. Action — like ballroom dancing — is fine, but without backstory, it’s not dramatic action.

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