The documentary Spellbound was a masterpiece of pop sociology that broke through to a wide audience. Now, in its wake, distributors have been scouring the festivals for docs that build to similarly nail-biting climaxes. As copycat trends go, this is pretty exciting. Unlike their vacuous TV reality-show cousins, these indie documentaries not only catch you up in complicated human dramas, they weave in themes of class and cultural diversity. Two charming new specimens are Mad Hot Ballroom (Paramount Classics) and A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (Magnolia Pictures). In the first, New York fifth-graders go cheek-to-cheek learning ballroom dancing and then go head-to-head competing against other schools. In the second, pro bowlers fight to make a living in a sport that's also fighting—for survival, bigger bucks, and a little respect, f'r cryin' out loud!
The director of Ballroom, Marilyn Agrelo, and the writer, Amy Sewell, have chosen to follow three elementary schools, one in Brooklyn's middle-class Bensonhurst, one in more-affluent Tribeca, and one in a primarily Dominican and impoverished section of Washington Heights. The movie never lingers long in one spot: It leaps from rehearsals to fleeting interviews with kids and teachers, with nothing in the way of narration. Frankly, I had to work pretty hard to keep all the teachers and fifth-graders straight.But Agrelo clearly wants to de-emphasize the individual portraits in favor of the panorama, and once you relax and go with it, you get swept up, and almost every shot carries a new revelation.
Ten and 11 are nebulous ages. These kids still have traces of the first-graders they were, but they're right on the brink of puberty—and they know it. The boys (slightly behind) are embarrassed to be dancing with girls, but they sort of like them and don't want to admit it, so they get rough instead ... and the girls have little crushes, too. They're little kids playing dress-up—forming their ideas about life in front of your eyes, and so vulnerable that they break your heart. One girl, the delightful little actress Tara from Tribeca, can't fully come to grips with the idea that her school won't win; she feels bad that the other kids may get hurt if they lose. Her teacher cries at the thought of bruising her students' tender feelings, about the consequences of losing—and with reason, it turns out.
I sympathize: One reason I hate the fact that my just-7-year-old daughter watches American Idol (long story) is that I don't want her to think about competition yet. I don't want her to see people being judged—and in some cases, ripped apart. Yes, that sounds odd coming from a critic—but these are people who aren't rich and famous and in some cases are getting torn apart with a camera in their face.
But up in Washington Heights in Mad Hot Ballroom, competition might be the only way out, and there are fewer illusions to be dashed. With the projects as the backdrop, some girls there talk matter-of-factly about dodging drug dealers and growing up in one-parent homes. They vow that the boys they'll end up with will be responsible—maybe like Kelvin, the quiet kid who emerges as a leader in rehearsals. And maybe not like Jonathan, the too-proud kid who doesn't like being told what to do and slinks off to play basketball instead. He comes off as a lost soul.
Mad Hot Ballroom is not as tidy as Spellbound, but for this milieu, maybe it's better not to spell things out. There are so many funny yet wrenching moments that the film's refusal to stop and probe can be a gift. A chubby boy dances alone with his arms out, whirling beseechingly as he looks for a partner while a teacher says, "Take a partner, take a partner." Finally, he grabs someone and the moment is saved—along with, presumably, his self-esteem. As the kids learn to stand up straight, tuck their shirts in, and make eye contact with their partners, they're doing more than finding their inner strength. They're becoming socialized.
Oh, yeah—the dancing. Merengue, Cuban, rumba, swing, tango—it's a pleasure to watch the kids strut their stuff, especially during the finals at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden, for judges who include Ann Reinking. But Mad Hot Ballroom is not a movie about dance. Over shots of the winning students, a teacher says that one of the girls was incorrigible and now, after a year of rehearsals, she has poise and self-control and doesn't get into trouble. Perhaps, with that final bit of underscoring, Agrelo tips her hand too much. All along we've known that the contest was a metaphor for getting your act together before taking it on the road.
The road is where the subjects live in the hilarious, sometimes rueful, and strangely hip documentary The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, directed by Chris Browne. It features men who are broken in and then some. When the film begins, bowling is on a downward spiral—a casualty of a more privatized culture, more men at home helping to raise kids—and it's suffering from its image as the sport of fat slobs, the only exercise where you gain weight.
When three ex-Microsoft vice presidents buy the pro-bowling association for a mere $5 million, they hire Steve Miller, a macho, can-do guy from Nike, to relaunch the brand and lift it out of the lower middle class. Suddenly, bowlers make entrances to the "William Tell Overture" and strike poses like pro wrestlers.
It's a little depressing for quiet, steady Walter Ray Williams Jr., the reigning bowling and horseshoe champ, but liberating for hothead Pete Weber, son of bowling legend Dick. Weber celebrates his strikes with mighty two-handed slaps to his crotch and points menacingly at pins that fail to fall. He wants to kill them. He catches the eye of the media, but he can't knock off steady, even-tempered Walter Ray. Primed to move to the next level of celebrity and money, Weber is often left bewildered, the last pin standing.
The League of Ordinary Gentleman also features a bowler on the rise, the tall, good-looking (but maybe too sensitive) Chris Barnes, who comes with an anxious wife and twin babies. And it has a bowler on the way down, the sad-sack casualty Wayne Webb, a compact ex-champ who partied hard when he was on top and now is broke, lonely, and bitter toward a sport that no longer has a place for hangers-on.
A League of Ordinary Gentlemen builds to the so-called 2003 World Championship outside Detroit—the key, says Steve Miller, to whipping up excitement about bowling's second coming. But even with the rock music and wrestling poses, the crowd skews old. You're left with a haunting vision—of a go-for-it, romantic, fame-and-fortune template featuring quasi-athletes who can't seem to climb out of the lower middle class.