Mad Hot Ballroom

Director: Marilyn Agrelo

U.S.A.| 2005. Colour. Dolby stereo. 110 min.

One of the most unlikely success stories of the year, Mad Hot Ballroom is a perky and effortlessly smooth documentary about New York teens in a citywide ballroom dancing competition and the caring adults who surround them. At its heart, the film is about the making of ‘little ladies and gentlemen’, in the words of teary-eyed teacher Allison Sheniak of PS 150 in Tribeca. But it’s all much less square then it sounds, since director Marilyn Agrelo is able to capture with easy charm and grace what happens between 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls as they break out of thei r childhood shells and interact with each other—and surprise themselves with abilities they didn’t know they had.
The documentary takes great joy in the people it films, allowing kids to be themselves at school and home (where the boys and girls let their hair down and say what they really think about the other sex) and showing, even more than Spellbound, jus how important teachers are. The film tends to soften the dangerous lives of the kids at 115, in a poor area of mostly Dominican Republic emigres, but it also shows that, even at age 10, these little one are fully aware of the risks around them and are driven to succeed, and avoid drugs and crime. Besides getting a bevy of cute shots of kids awkwardly trying to coordinate with each other, Agrelo couldn’t have been luckier with the story’s Hollywood ending, imbued with a sense that what’s being observed isn’t just kids winning or losing, but lives being saved from the mean streets.

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